Behind The Candelabra doesn't seem very likely to take the Palme d'Or, but Steven Soderbergh's alleged swansong proved very popular with audiences in Cannes, being a witty and affectionate, if not entirely factually accurate, biopic of flamboyant cabaret artist Liberace. Michael Douglas steals the show as the preening, neurotic but really rather likeable pianist, although Matt Damon proves a formidable supporting act, giving much-needed warmth to a slightly tragic and misguided figure.
The film opens in 1977, with Scott Thorson (Damon) working as an animal trainer in Hollywood movies. A chance meeting in a gay bar with Scott Bakula's Bob Black leads to an encounter with Liberace (Douglas) in Vegas, and an extended scene sets out the entertainer's camp charisma and genuine charm, engaging a largely blue-rinse, conservative crowd with a call-and-response boogie-woogie routine. Backstage, Liberace invites the pair to his home, forming an attachment to Thorson that develops into a full-blown relationship as the latter progresses from personal assistant to lover.
Neither director nor cast shirk their responsibilities, and the story is about as gay as it could possibly be, with lots of physical romping and open-mouth kissing. Douglas relishes the role, and is never upstaged by the ever more outrageous outfits that so defined Liberace's public image.
Some have described the film's ultimate descent into bitchery – when the relationship finally deteriorates beyond repair – as homophobic, but the other side of the coin is that Richard LaGravenese's very funny script does invest his characters with feelings and emotions that aren't always expected (for example, the young Thorson is prudish and monogamous, while Liberace is lewd and quite delightfully licentious).
Its roots as a TV movie are pretty clear, but Behind The Candelabra doesn't look at all out of place on the big screen. The happy(ish) ending doesn't quite tally with reality, but the film nicely reflects the dynamic of the relationship – a lonely millionaire finds a lost boy to father, using plastic surgery to make their bond creepily real – and brings out the all-too-human story behind the tabloid gossip.
Behind The Candelabra is out in the UK on June 7.