‘Behind the Candelabra’

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon pose as Liberace and boyfriendThe lifestyles of the rich, famous and queer get a provocative examination in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra.” If this is to be Soderbergh’s swan song — and evidence suggests it may not — then he goes out as he came in, with a clear-eyed, unsentimental, must-see film about sex and betrayal at the Festival de Cannes.

This is, of course, a fictionalized version of Scott Thorson’s memoir about his five-year stint as Liberace’s live-in boyfriend. So it touches on issues about a wild difference in age, fame and lifestyle between lovers along with the downside of celebrityhood and the tempting and often misused empowerment granted to the celebrated.

Having major actors such as Matt Damon and Michael Douglas certainly elevates the buzz surrounding the film even as it elevates the dramatic fireworks. Yet this may also throw off the dynamics within the Scott-Liberace relationship, possibly even distorting aspects of it.

What a shame though risk-adverse U.S. studios were unwilling to take a chance on a gay romance even with major stars, leaving it to HBO to make this film. Perhaps exec producer Jerry Weintraub should have pitched it as “Marvel Comics Presents Beyond the Candelabra.”

“Candelabra” certainly is part and parcel of one of the more exciting careers of present day filmmaking and may even be the first romance, if one views “Candelabra” as such, in Soderbergh’s filmography.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon relax poolside in Behind the CandelabraThe problem there is how to describe the unstable and possibly exploitative relationship between Scott and Lee, as the popular piano player and entertainer liked to be called. As portrayed in the film — let’s look at what the reality may have been later — there is considerable neediness and perhaps even love between these disparate lovers.

Scott comes from a succession of foster homes due to a mentally unbalanced mother. He did find a kind of stability with his last foster parents while training to be a vet and handling animals for film and TV shoots.

Lee enjoys extraordinary success in Las Vegas, where he lives an opulent life — with a rococo palace and rhinestone-encrusted limo — all the while carefully masking his homosexuality to maintain his mostly female fan base.

But he’s lonely, surrounded, as he says, by “people who are not family or friends. Know what that feels like?” Scott most certainly does.

Carefully establishing their mutual need at the moment Scott walks into Lee’s dressing room at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1977, Soderbergh and veteran writer Richard LaGravenese then chart the couple’s escalating passion and sexual hunger.

Michael Douglas plays piano in Beyond the CandelabraScott is not, the movie makes clear, Lee’s first boy toy. But he is the one that sticks or at least he does for five long years. Damon and Douglas throw whatever heterosexual inhibitions they possess to the desert wind to portray the erotic power that grips these two men.

They kiss, cuddle and share secrets. (Liberace’s priapic staying power owes to implants, for instance.) They even talk about religion and God. Despite the church’s anti-gay stance, Lee remains a devout Catholic all his life.

Douglas shows a feathery touch on the ivories as well. His piano playing is not faked so bravo for lessons well learned from his piano coaches.

Then comes the couple’s indulgence in plastic surgery. In Lee’s case, a terrifying glimpse of his aging self on the Tonight Show propels him to undergo a face lift that doesn’t allow him to completely close his eyes ever again. In Scott’s case, things are much more disturbing.

Lee not only makes noises about “adopting” Scott as his son, he wants the youth to resemble him. So a plastic surgeon (played with oily self-assurance by Rob Lowe) reconfigures Scott’s face to honor his client’s wishes. “Bride of Frankenstein” contains less horror when you come to think of it.

Yet this may be the first instance, as the movie unfolds, where you wonder if Soderbergh & Co. have the right angle on the Scott-Lee romance. There is something inherently wrong — no, make that sick — about this transformation. Given that Scott develops a bad drug habit post-surgery, this incident marks the beginning of a steady and eventually steep decline in the romance.

While maintaining some degree of ambiguity, the film pretty consistently insists on the love the men discovered with each other — even bringing Scott back for a final farewell before Liberace’s demise from the AIDS virus.

Yet the real-life Scott Thorson, currently facing charges of burglary and credit card crime and evidently fighting colon cancer, gave an interview last month to England’s Sunday People in which he said no one involved in the movie reached out to him. Indeed they seemingly went out of their way to snub him.

If true, this indicates the facts of the “romance” were not to get in the way of Soderbergh’s fiction. There is nothing inherently wrong in filmmakers taking a fictional route in a biopic. Indeed many an autobiography indulges in fiction, as we know.

But perhaps an even darker portrait of celebrityhood would have emerged had the filmmakers elected to dig deeper into a story they take only a superficial view of. When a 42-year-old actor such as Damon plays a boy toy, the exploitation by an older man seems less flagrant than the reality of an underage lad — Scott was 17 when he met Lee — servicing a middle-aged man.

Add to this the man’s annoyance when his toy gains a bit of weight and is forced on a pill-popping “diet,” a botched operation to create a toy in his own image and the Demerol, barbiturates and coke that assuages the resulting pain and a much uglier picture emerges.

Again, this is not to say Soderbergh is required to follow reality’s script. Yet this is the second recent HBO film that to a degree whitewashes a real person’s life — David Mamet’s “Phil Spector” being a much more egregious falsehood.

“Behind the Candelabra” at times resembles a two-hander as Damon and Douglas so occupy Lee’s underpopulated Vegas digs — furnished by designer Howard Cummings so as to completely justify Lee’s characterization of “palatial kitsch” — that they seem to exist on a desert island.

Nevertheless there are a couple of remarkable performances in the margins. Dan Aykroyd plays Lee’s disheveled agent and overall life arranger, Seymour Heller, while an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds appears as Lee’s aging, Austrian-accented mom, Frances.

Shot mostly in Vegas and Palm Springs, “Behind the Candelabra” for the most part surgerically penetrates its glitter and glam for a personal story of love, and love lost, that is as touching as it is disturbing.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival
Cable premiere: May 26, 2013 (HBO)
Production companies: JW Productions, HBO Films
Cast: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser, Cheyenne Jackson Boyd Holbrook
Director/director of photography: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Based on the book by: Scott Thorson, Alex Thorleifson
Producers: Gregory Jacobs, Susan Ekins, Michael Polaire
Executive producer: Jerry Weintraub
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Executive music producer: Marvin Hamlisch
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
No rating, 118 minutes