I don’t know a whole lot about Liberace other than this off-handed statement in an episode of South Park many years ago (I didn’t need to link to this, but I love seeing the Alabama Man bit). In fact the first time I saw a promo for this movie I thought it was about Siegfried and Roy. In any event there was something unusually captivating about it so I had to watch.
Behind the Candelabra is the story of the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and a young man named Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Scott was an animal trainer working on movie sets in Hollywood when he was invited by friend Bob Black to Las Vegas to see Liberace perform. After being introduced to him backstage after the show, Liberace invites the two over to his home for the weekend. When Liberace tells Scott about one of his dog’s blindness, Scott figures he can get the medicine that would relieve it and ship it over to him. Instead Liberace offers Scott an opportunity to be his assistant to primarily look after his animals as well as look after him.
The two begin a sexual relationship and Liberace takes Scott in to live with him. It doesn’t take long for Scott to realize that his sexuality isn’t the only thing that Liberace keeps hidden from the public. He sees him in his natural state, an unfit man that needs an elaborate wig to cover his naked scalp. Shortly after this encounter, he’s introduced to his plastic surgeon Dr. Startz (Rob Lowe) to get Scott on a regimen that would essentially transform him into a younger version of Liberace. Scott starts abusing the pills Dr. Startz prescribes as well as cocaine and becomes upset by Liberace’s recklessness visiting porn shops and his desire to have an open relationship. Scott seeks to end this relationship and walk away with some cash and just as easily as he came into Liberace’s estate, another young man is ready to take his place. Years later, Scott immersed back in the real world receives a call from Liberace to inform him that he’s not well and wishes to see him one last time.
The film depicts the life of a relationship between these two men in what is implied to have been a cycle for Liberace. The way this man dealt with his closeted homosexuality seems unfit especially for how lavishly he appears on stage and in public. Any time someone accused him of being gay he sued them and even in an official book depicted in the film he professed his love for a likely manufactured female figure. No matter, this made for some amazing performances from Douglas and Damon working very well together. Rob Lowe provided some unintentional comic relief and really pushed the film along once he got involved. I think Scott’s reaction to Liberace’s performance 10 minutes into the movie provides a great summary:
“It’s funny that this crowd would like something this gay.”