Behind the Candelabra

Every trip to Vegas I spent an afternoon wandering the Liberace Museum, listening to classical music embellished with trills and frills and boggling at the twin beds with the llama-fur throws. What kind of person does this? What kind of person wants to do this? And those lurid stories about the chauffeur having plastic surgery so Liberace could make love to his own dopplegänger ... how can you even wrap your mind around that? It's like maxing out your Decadence and Narcissism stats.

So I was the perfect audience for Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, based on that very chauffeur's memoir. When Scott Thorson (played by an astonishingly young-looking Matt Damon) meets Liberace, he's starstruck — and put off by the young gay guy sulking archly in the corner. But step by step, scene by scene, Soderbergh shows how naïve young Thorson metamorphoses into the next jealous soon-to-be-ex, sucking his cigarette and watching Liberace swoon over his new innocent.

Watching Candelabra is like being a gilded fly on an ormolu wall. The dialogue sounds overheard rather than scripted (which is a credit to the script). The film's Liberace lives in a gay bubble universe where his mother is the only woman with a speaking part (and whose portraits seem to hang in every room).

Liberace entrusts both Scott's face and his own to Dr. Starz (Rob Lowe as a taut-skinned reptoid). When he asks "Will I be able to close my eyes again?", Starz answers "No, but you'll be able to see everyone smiling at how young you look."1. Liberace's longtime agent, Seymour Heller, isn't welcome at dinner; Liberace jokes that it's because the man who already gets ten percent of his earnings doesn't need to share his dinner too, and there's a hint that it's because Seymour is Jewish, but perhaps the real reason is that unlike Liberace — who's so committed to keeping up appearances that he wears his toupee to bed — Seymour looks like a toad. (He's played by an unrecognizable Dan Aykroyd.)

"I want to be your father, your brother, your lover," coos Liberace, creepy and tender in the same breath. He wants to be his boyfriends' whole world, and he can't understand how he's smothering them.

Did it really happen that way? Eh, who knows; Thornton might not be a perfectly reliable narrator. But for two hours, you'll believe it could've.

Batman and Robin bid Liberace farewell

1. Quotes are approximate, not transcribed (back to article)

Written on October 4, 2016