Passion. Possession. Infatuation. Betrayal. These are the hallmarks of any unhealthy and dramatic relationship. And despite the glitz and glam of Steven Soderbergh‘s Behind the Candelabra, none of these emotions feels fresh or surprising despite the talent of the lead actors and the colorful figure of Liberace. The strange relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is rendered inert by a dramatic trajectory that’s been laid out within the first ten minutes. The love affair isn’t doomed; it’s predictable. At best, Behind the Candelabra makes out love to be as shiny, entrancing, and as fake as Liberace’s public persona.
The story runs from 1977 to 1986. Liberace has been famous for decades, and “Mr. Showmanship” is one of the stars of Vegas as his skills as an entertainer, with his rhinestone-encrusted costumes and piano, dazzles audiences. Scott attends one of Liberace’s shows, is absolutely entranced by the performer, and is brought backstage by one of Liberace’s friends, Bob Black (Scott Bakula). Liberace quickly takes a shine to Scott, who has worked with animals on movies, and is able to restore sight to Liberace’s poodle. We then follow the intimacy and destruction of the couple’s relationship as Scott becomes jealous and turns to drug abuse while Liberace grows distant and begins looking for a younger model.
The relationship would hold some dramatic weight if its path wasn’t neatly laid out by Liberace’s relationship with Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), a handsome backup pianist who angrily sits in a corner when Scott meets Liberace. As he angrily chomps in the foreground, we know Billy has had the kind of relationship with Mr. Showmanship that Scott is about to have. And if it wasn’t clear enough, Liberace’s houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay) tells Scott point blank that he isn’t the first and won’t be the last. Scott is simply the latest plaything, and Soderbergh hopes that we’ll find something fascinating in Thorson’s relationship with Liberace.
To be sure, Liberace is an odd duck. Aside from the usual trappings of fame that can make one paranoid, insecure, and create a feeling of victimization, Liberace wants to be Scott’s entire world. The young animal trainer easily gives himself over to the Vegas entertainer because Scott is too naïve to realize that he’s become Liberace’s human pet. The relationship is made abundantly clear as he gives Scott the same nickname as the poodle, “Baby Boy.” This isn’t love. It’s ownership, and makes Scott a possession that’s destined to be discarded because he isn’t a “dumb animal.”
If there’s anything captivating in between (aside from Soderbergh’s playful direction like using Liberace’s jaunty music during gruesome plastic surgery), it’s that Thorson and Liberace have convinced themselves they’re in a romantic relationship to the point of basically being married, but there’s no equality between them. Liberace holds all the power, and he only wants more. He wants to be Scott’s “father, brother, lover” and suggests literally adopting Scott at one point. This framework deprives any Douglas and Damon of creating any serious chemistry. We’re watching a relationship that has already played off screen, and we’re left to wonder why this one is special. The relationship between Liberace and Scott is just as phony as the horrific face of Liberace’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe).
Nevertheless, we’ve seen this kind of hollow relationship before. The only twist is that this relationship involves Liberace. Despite his lack of chemistry with Damon, Douglas brings the pianist to life, and we do feel a great amount of sympathy for him despite his many personal failings. Douglas makes us believe that Liberace isn’t a careless monster; he’s just become too trapped to realize he’s being careless with other people’s feelings. It’s a charming performance, but like the chemistry with Damon, it’s undermined by the well-trod territory of the story. We know famous people behave this way.
The familiarity of the characters and their dysfunctional relationship drains the color from the gaudy trapping of their lives and the movie. Liberace is an ostentatious and colorful figure, but what humanizes him feels mundane rather than insightful. It’s a disappointing swan song for Soderbergh if this is truly his final feature. It says nothing personal and nothing new. What’s behind the candelabra may be curious, but it’s rarely compelling.