(Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
Something about Matt Damon seems to bring out the black comedian in Steven Soderbergh. Think of The Informant! and its quietly hilarious depiction of escalating and mammoth self-delusion. Or even his role in the second and third Oceans films, where he is the most hapless and insecure of the leads, his part in their schemes the most comic and bizarre. In Oceans Thirteen he wears a false nose for the heist itself, and he again finds himself with an augmented proboscis in Soderbergh's Behind The Candelabra. Though the film is centred around Liberace, the Las Vegas Entertainer, Damon plays Scott Thorson, the actual protagonist of the story. He is a young Californian hunk who becomes Liberace's (Michael Douglas) live-in lover, companion and chauffeur in the late '70s. Soderbergh's film traces the rise and fall of their relationship from early bloom to late decay, all the while painting a picture of the bizarre bubble of kitsch and wealth Liberace's celebrity allowed him to live in.
The director's intelligence is evident in the way he chooses to present that world; filming in rooms of such overwhelmingly oppressive bad taste they make your teeth ache, he maintains a classical style, allowing the production design to do the work. His camera moves little, his compositions are simple and understated. He sticks to two-shots to capture conversations, occasionally giving us a wider view of the ridiculous opulence of an immense room.
As befits a production made for HBO, its a deceptively small, intimate film, intent mainly upon the relationship between these two men, opening out only a few times throughout. This becomes an issue between the characters - Thorson eventually wants to go out and meet people, whereas Liberace ("Lee" to his friends) is content to stay at home, except for the occasional visit to a glory hole in a sex shop. Later this is briefly switched when Lee asks for an open relationship, only to grow furious when he suspects Scott is seeing somebody else. They both have their issues - Lee first wants to adopt Scott, then pays for him to have plastic surgery so that they look more alike (hence Damon's nose), while Scott becomes addicted to diet pills and pays his dealer with jewellery he steals from Lee's house.
All of this is given a sort of sheen of deadpan hysteria, capped off beautifully by Rob Lowe as Lee's plastic surgeon, his own face stretched so tight he seems to have no eyes, his tone a sort of glazed amusement at everything he hears. The facelift he gives Lee means that he can never fully close his eyes, meaning that Scott finds him snoring one night, eyes half open
If their early courtship is unconventional, the way they fall apart is far more recognisable - jealousy, boredom, another person - and the two leads are superb at evoking the pain and complexity of it all.
While Douglas brings a pretty decent Liberace impression to life, with frequently hilarious results, Damon, miscast (he is nearly 20 years too old) on the surface, does much more interesting work as Thorson, suggesting his neediness and early naiveté and tracing the way that shifts through exposure to wealth and privilege.
He is a complex mess; claiming he is "bisexual" ("Well I haven't met the part that likes women", Lee replies) and finding anal sex "repugnant" while shunning his foster-parents despite loving them, writing songs and bemoaning the fact that all Lee's entourage hate him, his peculiar situation is clearly difficult. His resultant addiction and desperation seem like a natural progression for this vulnerable kid from a harsh background, and his late collapse is nicely, furiously played by Damon. The likes of a brilliant Rob Lowe, Dan Akroyd and Scott Bakula do good work in the background as the many figures around the outskirts of their life together.
By the end, the black comedy has mostly ebbed away to be replaced by a melancholy sense of loss and regret. But Soderbergh ensures it remains a black comedy to the end, indulging in a final musical set-piece, as Thorson imagines Lee singing "The Impossible Dream"and flying off the stage.
That it is largely a true story seems almost unbelievable.