The permeable line between exact, professional skill and private, volatile emotions has been one of Steven Soderbergh’s most distinctive fascinations. The climactic, multi-layered heist in Ocean’s Eleven is put at risk by the lead thief’s attempt to recapture his lost love; the killer heroine of Haywire is set up by her boss, who also happens to be her ex; a new romance and a good job are put on the line when the titular single mom of Erin Brockovich becomes obsessively involved with a class-action lawsuit. So, as the prolific filmmaker settles into his much-touted retirement from big-screen projects, it’s telling that it’s his interest in the unstable nature of employment that comes most clearly to the forefront in Behind the Candelabra, his long-gestating take on the complicated relationship between virtuosic, closeted pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his companion, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
In Soderbergh’s dazzlingly detailed vision of their five-year relationship, and the ensuing four years leading to Liberace’s AIDS-related death, the entertainer’s use of his fame, riches, and charm to seduce, manipulate, alter, and ultimately control Scott (and other young men) mirrors a voracious need to find an intimate equivalent to the overflowing public adoration he receives. At first hired by Liberace for a variety of positions (bodyguard and secretary among them), Scott quickly takes on the role of the showman’s private live-in boyfriend, though Liberace expresses a desire to be everything to Scott: father, brother, lover, best friend. That Scott is technically his employee, and that the parameters of their relationship are dictated through doctors, managers, and agents, allows Liberace an ever-present, though rarely vocally expressed, dominance in their romance that engenders his possessiveness.
Their story, as told in Richard LaGravanese’s nuanced script, is breathlessly involving and fascinating, and Soderbergh’s ripened, exquisite style beautifully expresses the dull luxury of this era and arena of the industry. Indeed, the director’s openly critical view of show business and particularly Hollywood as desiring of submission, uniformity, and impersonality in entertainers and filmmakers informs Scott and Liberace’s unsettling relationship. Yet, Liberace doesn’t seem totally monstrous, despite his rampant narcissism and need for control, and Douglas’s wise, subtle, and effective performance proves crucial in showing how Liberace’s corrosive, desperate vanity comes from a wanting for acceptance.
As much as Soderbergh, who had meant Behind the Candelabra to be a feature film, views Liberace as a lovable, bedazzled repressor, the late entertainer is also a melancholic vision of the filmmaker’s future as an artist and ostensible showman, one in which his direction and style has altered individual stories and people into his own depiction of them. And Douglas, one of the great modern leading men, echoes that fear as an aging performer, one who was recently gripped by mortality during a much-publicized battle with cancer. In a crucial scene, Liberace recalls a close call with kidney failure, a near-fatal experience that he believes he was saved from by a godly apparition: a nun dressed all in white. This hallucination not only cements his Christianity (read: self-repression), but also dedicates him to the duty of entertainment forever, and it’s certainly no minor coincidence that Soderbergh places Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), in the exact same spot as the nun when Liberace awakes from his vision.
Image, especially that which is publicly available, is of particular interest to Soderbergh as well. The entertainer demands that Scott get plastic surgery to look more like him, to the point that he’s mistaken for Liberace’s progeny, following a TV appearance that causes the pianist to exclaim, “I look like my father”; earlier, Scott swoons over Liberace’s youthful visage in Sincerely Yours, his sole starring vehicle. It’s not just the difference in age, as Liberace prefers a fictional version of himself to the real thing. The density of the subtext, however, never overruns the intimacy of the relationship, or renders it a mere delivery system for the ideas. Damon is every bit as remarkable as Douglas, imbuing Scott’s wavering relationship with self-image and identity with a sense of genuine struggle, as the character adheres to his lover’s directions far more than he rebukes them. Dr. Startz (Rob Lowe), the plastic surgeon responsible for Scott’s nips/tucks, helps him form a drug addiction to match his addiction to pleasing Liberace, and if the film begins to feel a bit too familiar when drug addiction becomes the major focus, the bedroom talk feels consistently bold, genuine, and witty.
It’s suggested that Liberace’s mother, Frances (Debbie Reynolds), had repressed him, exemplified by a sequence of bitter comedy when Frances hits the jackpot while playing a gambling machine in Liberace’s home; when her son is unable to pay her the full amount, she embarrasses him. The idea of a natural, cooperative relationship being governed by profit and emotional dominance plays into Soderbergh’s cynical view of his profession and art form, but like mother and son, and, for that matter, Liberace and Scott, the director’s relationship with entertainment is not one lacking for passion or dedication. Thematic kin to Clint Eastwood’s terrific J. Edgar, Behind the Candelabra is powerful, funny, and emotionally rigorous, and though it might act as a fiery and forceful resignation, in conjunction with Side Effects, it also serves as an uncommonly heartfelt Dear John letter.