For his final film (for now, at least), Steven Soderbergh turns fairy godfather, granting liberace’s wish “to be a movie star”.
Laying bare the homosexuality he hid from public view, it’s hardly the red-carpet treatment the fiercely litigious pianist dreamt of. Nor is it the fantastically kitsch biopic that some anticipated. Rather, it’s a witty, classy study of relationships, sex and stardom.
It’s based on the memoir of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a teenage animal handler who’s taken backstage (ahem), at a Liberace concert. Wowed by the superstar (Michael Douglas), Scott soon becomes his live-in lover, and will do anything for love (but he won’t do that).
Following the wax and wane of the couple’s affair, the story doesn’t take too many unexpected twists. But when the man at the centre delivers it with such élan, it hardly matters.
It’s a deceptively complex role – Douglas is playing a gay man pretending to be a straight man performing a camp revue twice nightly in Vegas – and he modulates accordingly. His stage patter is brilliantly stilted, his offstage seductions significantly smoother.
The lack of vanity required to play such a vain man is remarkable; the 60-something liberace is secretly bald and paunchy, and so, here, is Douglas.
By contrast, despite an expertly sculpted torso, Damon’s part isn’t quite as meaty. Fortunately, Damon is a master at doing a lot with a little, often at his most watchable when being watchful. It’s a quality that serves him well here, and means he isn’t wholly upstaged by Douglas.
Both leads get an excellent assist from top-spec CGI, making the 42-year-old Damon’s cheeks peachy and rejuvenating/aging Douglas to startling effect.
Old-school tricks have their place too: a floppy wig hides Rob lowe’s Marlene Dietrich facelift, his taped-up features giving his plastic surgeon a gleefully sleazy squint.
US studios passed on the project, fearing a hard sell in the red states, but they needn’t have worried too much; Damon and Douglas don’t hold back, but the camera adopts a relatively coy stance (odd, given that full-frontal friendly HBO green-lit it).
Still, there’s a clear subtext supporting gay marriage, and though Soderbergh maintains his typical emotional reserve for the most part, Behind The Candelabra ends on a note that’s both touching and dazzling; Liberace would surely approve.
Douglas pulls out all the stops while – somehow – avoiding caricature in a glittering celebrity portrait. If Soderbergh’s swansong doesn’t always mine great depths, it gives fabulous surface.