After young, bisexual show-dog trainer Scott Thorson (Damon) is introduced to aging megastar pianist Liberace (Douglas), the pair become lovers, despite the latter being publicly heterosexual. This is the story of their strange, troubled, six-year relationship.
Thought you'd seen the last of Steven Soderbergh movies with Side Effects? Well, not quite. Turns out that, in the UK at least, he has one more: a magnificent, fabulous, rhinestone-studded encore featuring a pair of performances that would scream Oscar had the film not been deemed ‘too gay’ for a US theatrical release. Americans have to flick to kudos-earning HBO to find Behind The Candelabra; us lucky Brits can behold Michael Douglas’ fearless, transformative turn as Walter ‘Lee’ Liberace on the big screen.
In shakier hands, the TV budget would glare almost as much as Mr. Showmanship’s dentures, but Soderbergh turns his limitations into intriguing visual choices; so, rather than seeing a Learjet in flight, we get overexposed, close-up shots of what appears to be a toy plane. That said, he’s savvy enough, for the large part, to step back and let both Richard LaGravenese’s script (based on Scott Thorson’s own account) and his leading couple’s binary-star performance do the work.
In a strange way, Douglas has the easier deal. Sure, he has to throw himself into some perhaps (for a man so ruggedly hetero throughout his career) uncomfortable positions, but it’s all a question of ostentatiousness — even though, with exquisite irony, Lee remained firmly within the closet right up to his death, and even for a short while after. It’s sequins, flagrant gesticulation and lines like, “I call this palatial kitsch. Don’t you just love it?” Although props to Douglas for pulling it all off with sensitivity and sympathy; given this story is told from the perspective of someone who was ultimately wronged by Liberace, he could have come off as some kind of monstrous, predatory peacock.
It’s Matt Damon, as that wronged party, who impresses most, though. It is the hardest role: the non-showy one. Somehow we accept his Scott as being quietly assured rather than nervous, just a little unworldly rather than a cripplingly naive rube. It makes it all the more interesting to witness his regression to fussed-over, all-too-easily-discarded house doll; greater testament, appropriately oddly, to the sheer power of Liberace’s personality.
Whod have thought Michael Douglas and Matt Damon would make such an astonishing, convincing on-screen couple? Steven Soderbergh, thats who...