Liberace was a one-off. He was piano prodigy who grew up to be one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. He was reviled by the critics for his musical choices and his allegedly sloppy playing. He was beloved by his mostly female audience for his glamour and sense of showmanship. He was regarded by many as a joke, a purveyor of easy-listening mush, the Andre Rieu of his era.
If Liberace is before your time, it’s hard to appreciate what an iconic pop culture figure he was for almost 40 years. His seven homes and his Las Vegas show demonstrated his taste for gaudiness and excess. The over-the-top presentation that he called ‘palatial kitsch’ is the kind of thing Las Vegas was created for. The essence of his public persona was the dazzle. Between his piano numbers, he cracked cozy jokes about his mother and his brother, to create a sense of family. He act was faux self-deprecation and sincere self-adoration.
Liberace was a closeted gay man whose career began in an era when no one was out and proud. Although the Gay Pride movement grew in his lifetime, Liberace stayed well away from activism or any public acknowledgment of his sexuality. He believed being known as gay would be the death of his showbiz career. He found validation in money and fame and had no truck with identity politics.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is based on the book written by Scott Thorson who was Liberace’s secret lover from 1977-1982. They met when Thorson was 17 and Liberace was 57. Much of story’s tension comes from the contradiction of Liberace’s public and private lives. He was a politically conservative man and a devout Catholic. He had a number of affairs before and after Thorson, but it is Thorson’s contention that their relationship was like a marriage. It should be noted than in public, Liberace said he, “just hadn’t met the right woman yet”.
We are led to believe that Thorson loved Liberace, but what we see of the older man is often unflattering. He is portrayed as a world-class manipulator; a narcissist superstar who almost always got his own way. Thorson is shown as a passive kid who just wanted to be loved and taken care of. Given the disparity in their ages and financial standing, clearly the power was with Liberace, however as the source of the story is Thorson, it makes sense to ingest this tale with a grain of salt. Was their nothing of the hustler in the younger man? It is a reasonable question for an audience to ask.
Director Steven Soderbergh made the movie for cable TV in the US and it was released on HBO. Elsewhere in the world, including Australia, it is getting a theatrical release. Soderbergh has fashioned a tale of monstrous celebrity and decadent living; the wealth and the power Liberace wields, turns him into a self-entitled, heartless man who treats his loved ones as commodities.
However, being a Soderbergh film, the portrayal of Liberace is more subtle than that. Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay is efficient and never gets bogged down in prurience. It allows an overall story to build and avoids almost all the messiness of a standard biographical picture. Michael Douglas is brilliant as Liberace. His characterisation will stand alongside FALLING DOWN’s D-Fens and WALL STREET’s Gordon Gekko as his best work. Damon has the less showy role and he does a solid and sympathetic job as Thorson.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is in Australian cinemas now it runs for 118 minutes. I rated it a 6/10.