It’s a love story to end all love stories in terms of the macabre. The last ten years of Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life found him entranced with a younger man named Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). After meeting Scott backstage at one of Liberace's Vegas shows when Scott was seventeen, Liberace hired him as his, ahem, assistant. Scott’s experience as an animal trainer for movies was the initial excuse Liberace used for needing Scott’s aid with his aging poodle, Baby Boy. As the supposed last feature-length release from Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra (based on Thorson’s memoir of nearly the same name) seems, on the surface, like an unusual choice. However, Soderbergh’s history in creating lush, complex visual tableaus makes complete sense in this particular story of decadence and hedonism.
Richard LaGravenese’s (who every girl unwittingly loves for writing A Little Princess) script manages to cover an immense amount of ground, starting in 1977 and ending in 1987, the year of Liberace’s death (predictably, of AIDS). Along the way, there are plastic surgeries, drug addictions, porn palaces and affairs. But before any of that arises, there is a genuine tenderness between the two men. In spite of Scott insisting on his bisexuality, Liberace—a quintessential Taurus—has an overt need to be in control, which doesn’t allow much room for Scott to explore his so-called interest in women. For about two years, the couple lives in relative harmony—that is, until Liberace gets plastic surgery not only for himself but for Scott as well. To make the “gift” even creepier, Liberace asks of his doctor (played consummately by Rob Lowe) to make Scott look like a younger version of himself.
Although Scott manages to hold Liberace’s attention for a longer than average amount of time (previously, it was his protégé, Vince Cardell—renamed to Billy Leatherwood and played by Cheyenne Jackson in the film), the pianist’s attentions gradually begin to divert toward other (read: younger) clientele. In spite of all the promises Liberace made to Scott about loyalty, money, property, etc., these vows quickly fall by the wayside as Liberace grows increasingly bored on a sexual level.
While Scott is preoccupied enough with his drug obsession to agree to an “open relationship” with Liberace, the second he has a flirtation or dalliance of his own with another man, Liberace flies off the handle. The jealousies and the double standards are too much for Scott to bear, who is ultimately cast aside anyway—but not with out putting up a legal fight. In the end, Scott wins financially, but loses his entire world. Liberace, on the other hand, is contented enough with his houseboys and fledgling career—until karma bites him in the ass with the AIDS card.
Behind the Candelabra may be a biopic, but is, above all, a story of the purest form of love—one that expresses an impenetrable connection between souls, for that is exactly what occurred between Scott Thorson and Liberace. Either that, or Thorson was a glorified rent boy. I suppose we’ll never truly know for sure, but I prefer to see their romance through Soderbergh’s beautiful lens.