Before Elvis, Elton John and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace, a virtuoso pianist, outrageous entertainer and flamboyant star of stage and television. For forty years his saccharin smile and easy listening style made him a housewives favourite. But the glitzy diva was living a secret double life.
Based on a revealing memoir, Behind The Candelabra tells the true life story of handsome young wannabe Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon) who, in the disco summer of 1977, changed his life forever when he walked into the dressing room of veteran entertainer Liberace. Despite their age difference and seemingly different worlds, the two embarked on a secretive five-year love affair.
When we first see Liberace, he is glittering from afar, as Scott and his friend Bob Black (played by Scott Pakula) take their seats at his Las Vegas show. Liberace continues to twinkle, tinkling the ivories to his legion of adoring female fans. Up close, it is simply astounding to see Michael Douglas in a fabulous fur coat and resplendent rhinestones as the extravagantly camp performer. “It’s funny this crowd would like something this gay” says a surprised Scott. “They have no idea he’s gay” replies Bob.
Behind The Candelabra takes us into the hidden world of ‘Mr Showmanship’, who remained strictly straight in the public glare of conservative America. “I want to be everything to you Scott” he tells his young protege “Father, brother, lover and friend.” We witness the many highs and lows of their tempestuous relationship, from the glee of their early romance to their bitter and public break-up.
Michael Douglas dazzles as Liberace, hard to imagine a more dynamic screen performance this year. Can this really be the hard nosed heart-throb who played Gordon Gecko? Matt Damon proves once again that he is one of the most versatile stars on screen, ageing seamlessly from naive lad to jaded junkie.
The chemistry between the two leads is a joy to behold “I can’t stand it when you have a face like that” Liberace tells a forlorn Scott “Especially when I paid for it.” Indeed it’s not the sex, drugs or spangled souls that’s the most shocking revelation but the explicit Hollywood nip and tuck. Both Liberace and Scott go under the knife of strangely fantastic plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz, hilariously portrayed by a feline faced Rob Lowe.
The rest of the supporting cast all sparkle too including Singing In The Rain’s Debbie Reynold’s as Liberace’s Polish mama and boggle-eyed Dan Ackroyd as Liberace’s pushy manager. Director Steven Soderbergh keeps his camera low and intimate making this feel like a deliciously dark version of ‘Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous’.
And it’s all done in the best possible taste.
Beyond The Candelabra (Cert 15) opens at the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday.