Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra is a 2013 biographical drama. It’s a lot of fun! But also terribly sad, as it’s based on the eponymous 1988 novel as written by Scott Thorson.
As an 18-year-old in 1977, Thorson had a relationship with world-famous pianist Władziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987).
Over the course of a turbulent relationship, all manner of unusual events occur. Leading to an acrimonious split and all kinds of love life drama. Let’s celebrate this thing as it hits its 10th anniversary.
Obsession Over Youth in Behind the Candelabra (plus lots of black humour)
The film begins in 1977, when 18-year-old Scott Thorson (working as an animal trainer for movies) meets a Hollywood producer. The man suggests Thorson leave his adopted home to head into society and find better paying work.
During with his encounters with the producer, Thorson discovers Liberace. The young man meets the pianist after a show, with the latter taking an immediate liking to Thorson.
The young man is promptly lavished with love and attention and brought into a world of extreme wealth and luxury.
All goes super well to begin with and it’s like a whirlwind romance.
But after a while Liberace’s egocentric behaviour becomes more apparent, particularly after Thorson moves in. The pianist commences plans to meld his lover into a younger version of himself.
He brings in Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) for this, a doctor so skilled at plastic surgery his own face is now barely able to move.
Thorson’s frustrations with this controlling behaviour lead him to drug abuse. Not helped as Liberace hides his romantic life vehemently.
Famously, he’d aggressively sue any newspaper who dared to publish a story suggesting he was gay. With his vast fortune, Liberace had no problems taking on the likes of the UK’s tabloid press.
The pair begin to argue more frequently, with Liberace’s often distant behaviour set between bouts of affectionate outbursts. Again, bearing in mind Thorson was much younger than his partner during this period.
Gradually, Thorson’s drug use grows and Liberace finds interest in younger men. This creates a rift that only ever grows, with Liberace wanting to end the relationship.
Thorson is pissed off and seeks legal action for a share of Liberace’s estate. He sues the pianist for palimony (division of financial assets and real property). In real life, the court case began in 1984—as usual, Liberace denied he’d had a relationship with Thorson.
The pair only met again in 1986 when Liberace asked Thorson to visit him on his deathbed, where they part after a final, emotional conversation.
Yes, then, this is an excellent film. In parts funny, tragic, and sad—it’s heartfelt and the performances are terrific from both leads.
One minor issue is Matt Damon’s age is a bit obvious. He may have a youthful look about him, but he was 42 during this shoot and he was supposed to be playing someone in their early 20s.
Scott Thorson was 23 when his relationship with Liberace ended in April 1982. Matt Damon looks like he’s in his early 40s. But… it’s a quibble.
Another but! What an inspired bit of casting with Michael Douglas. Robin Williams was considered for the role, but Douglas really knocked this one out of the park. He’s brilliant in this role, displaying he’s a mighty fine actor at his best.
Thanks to his charisma, Behind the Candelabra is often funny, eye-opening, and a beguiling look into the type of life most of us will never lead. Yet it’s ultimately tragic.
Liberace was diagnosed as HIV positive in August 1985.
He kept this a secret and didn’t seek any medical treatment, before developing AIDS and dying on February 4th 1987. His death was reported in the media as heart disease (as instructed by the pianist’s agent).
Two of Liberace’s post-Thorton lovers also died of AIDS in the 1990s.
The Production of Behind the Candelabra
Above is the very real Liberace in action. He was a virtuoso pianist who’d begun playing at the age of four, with his talent obvious. By age seven he could memorise tricky pieces and reel them off with ease.
He was bigger than Elvis at the peak of his fame, with a career spanning four decades where he remained the highest paid entertainer in the world from the 1950s through to the 1970s.
In the early 1940s, he moved away from more traditional classical music playing and started throwing pop music alongside other stuff. As he put it, “Classical with the boring parts left out.”
By 1954 he was earning the equivalent of over $1 million per show, although music critics didn’t much appreciate his playing style. Didn’t matter. The public loved him!
However, since Liberace’s death we feel his legacy has dimmed somewhat. Perhaps it’s because he just wasn’t part of our generation, having been born in 1984, but we don’t ever really see him mentioned much in popular culture.
Certainly not in the way, for example, Elvis always is.
As for the production’s beginnings, Steven Soderbergh suggested the project to Michael Douglas as early as 2000, during the production for the film Traffic. Eventually, the director settled on Scott Thorson’s book as an excellent concept for adaptation beyond a more predictable biopic.
Douglas’ performance was absolutely terrific, there’s no doubt. Really, quite a career defining role for him.
And he did have some ties with the subject matter. His father, Kirk Douglas, had a house near where Liberace lived. Michael Douglas said, as a kid, he occasionally saw Liberace in the neighbourhood.
As for the direction, attention to detail was high. The pianos on set were those once owned by Liberace. Douglas didn’t learn to become a virtuoso piano player (as you’d kind of expect), so instead his head was digitally added to pianist Philip Fortenberry after he’d performed the scenes.
Scott Thorson participated in the project to oversee it, receiving $100,000 for his efforts. He later admitted he spent most of that on cars and jewellery.
Debbie Reynolds (an acquaintance of Liberace’s) appears as his mother in the film, which turned out to be her last film role.
On a final note, in darkly humourous fashion, we have to flag up Rob Lowe’s amusing (but disturbing) performance. We thought this was CGI, but it’s actually real and the makeup crew worked their magic on him.
To achieve that look, this is what Lowe said of the experience:
“It’s tape pulled behind my head. It’s literally what they used to do in the early days of cinema before there were facelifts for actresses. You know, Joan Crawford, her whole career was this. You tape, you pull around the back of the head, but you have to have a wig because it covers the elastic. We did that, and I’m also wearing a dental piece and then I’m doing a couple of things, a couple of tricks with my face, the way I’m holding it. Then of course the makeup is literally like Earl Scheib autobody paint sprayed on my face… it was actually really painful, because being pulled that long and that hard for a 12-hour day – it gave me migraines. We shot during the summer. It was unbelievably hot. The wig, being pulled, it was definitely not the most comfortable experience physically for sure.”
There you go, then. Plastic surgery would have solved all that woe—it really is the answer.