11 June 2013

The Bling King

At the start of Steven Soderbergh's new movie Behind the Candelabra, 17-year-old Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and his buddy Bob (Scott Bakula) sit at a Liberace show. The impressionable young Scott is entranced by the performer, played by Michael Douglas, but there's something about the doting, middle-aged female audience he doesn't get. "Oh, they have no idea he's gay," Bob tells him. Because it's 1976. Scott meets the great man after the show and, as a would-be-vet, he offers to get some medicine for Liberace's deaf, blind dog, and the two become fast friends. And lovers. And a whole lot more. "I wanna be everything to you, Scott: father, brother, lover," the older man says.

Scott was raised by several different families, but was particularly close to Rose and Joe, his latest parent figures. Soon, though, he has given them along with his job, the rest of his life and eventually even his face to move in with "Lee," ousting various other male companions and staff in the process. It's just like the Another Suitcase in Another Hall scene in Evita. "Lee thinks he's King Ludovic — the Liberace of Bavaria," Scott's buddy tells him. "Was he a piano player too?" asks our na├»ve protagonist.

At first things are fun: they're in love, they cook together, they spend a lot of time in the hot tub. But then things get a little strange. Very strange, in fact. First, when Liberace consults with his plastic surgeon, Jack Startz (a hilariously whacked Rob Lowe), he decides that Scott should have some work done too. In fact, he wants Scott to look just like a younger version of himself, which creeps Scott out, but he eventually agrees, as long as the surgeon will give him a dimple, and a big supply of his special "California diet" pills. There are toe-curling shots of the surgery in action, but these scenes are thankfully brief, and interspersed with, presumably, Scott's happy dreams of his lover on stage.

Then, Liberace decides they should have an open relationship, but by open, he means he can see other people but Scott can't. There's a newer and even younger bloke on the scene, and suddenly Scott finds himself with his suitcases (and furs) in another hall. Things turn uglier still, when we get to Scott's lawsuit against his former lover/boss/almost adoptive father—these scenes had something of The Social Network about them. But he makes it out and, a couple of years down the line he seems OK. Of course, the film is based on Thorson's own memoir, so of course, we see what he wants us to see; the reality seems to have less of a happy ending.

I knew almost nothing about Liberace before I saw Behind the Candelabra and I definitely hadn't heard of Scott Thorson. It's a little hard to know what to make of their relationship, as portrayed by Soderbergh's movie, given that it has to be so one-sided. I thought Douglas and Damon's performances were excellent and they had great chemistry together. Damon did a particularly job of making a non-entirely sympathetic character seem more likeable and human. Both actors had to put in a lot of work physically too: Damon barely seemed much older than a teenager at the start, and yet after seven years of partying hard, he looked a lot closer to his real age. As for Douglas, it was amazing to see how much older he looked when Liberace took off his wig (actually Douglas's real hair). Oh, and I'm sure Dr Startz's face lifts helped too.

Wonderfully bonkers, incredibly camp and yet always engaging, Soderbergh's last movie to be released is great fun. To get my Soderbergh fix, though, I'm now eyeing up The Knick, a TV mini-series with Clive Owen (yes, please).

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