The first cut is self-inflicted. Going into a situation where we know we can be hurt. With eyes open and using what we perceive as awareness and context as a shield, we let the first barb draw blood to acclimate, to get a base reading of how things are, to show we can handle whatever comes our way. We insist that we know what we're getting ourselves into, designing elaborate defenses and if/thens for if things deviate from our plan.
The second cut is very gradual, and it is born of routine. Consistency. And feeling like we've broken a pattern. We feel special, because the routine has inured us to the valleys with its dependable peaks. Just by being ourselves, we feel good about ourselves — the cowboy individualist stays the course and saves the day; cue the fireworks and power ballad love theme.
The third cut is the realization that it was all for naught, and that you bought the same line as countless others. You weren't special. You didn't manage to shake things up in a fulfilling way. And now you're back where you started, but burnt out inside and completely bereft of the energy it takes to give a shit and try again.
Those three cuts form pretty much the structure of every Lifetime movie, complaint-rock "love" song, and season-long romantic arc on any established form of episodic TV. But damned if Steven Soderbergh didn't find a way to make it all feel like something you've never experienced before, in what may be his last feature film for a while. Behind the Candelabra (which repeats on HBOEast at 11:30 a.m. today and remains available on demand) is specifically the story of pianist/entertainer/international superstar Władziu Liberace (but call him Lee, darling — everybody who's anybody does) and the few years he spent tangled up in the life of Scott Thorson.
Thorson, an aspiring veterinarian and animal trainer (no, not in the Siffredi sense — get your minds out of the gutter), started out beautiful and decent. But he ended up another casualty of love — a used-up trophy spouse who couldn't even take some degree of satisfaction from any sort of legal recognition. If nothing else, Behind the Candelabra is a valuable social tool for recognizing that rich old men, whether gay or straight, have similar patterns of behavior when it comes to beautiful people and things.
That Liberace is played by Michael Douglas and that Thorson is played by Matt Damon certainly makes things interesting. On the surface, it's another case of straight actors playing gay and reaping acclaim for taking such brave chances. But there's so much more to these two performances than what happens to be on the surface.
Douglas, who as a youth spent several summers living next door to Liberace, has brushed up on his Susan Sontag and fashioned his incarnation of Lee as a lie that tells the truth. He's an incalculably rich megastar who is always performing for somebody, a randy bastard capable of incredible generosity and unimaginable cruelty. He wants to have a family of his own, but finds it more useful to keep his lovers around as employees, using his business manager (a brilliant, ice-cold Dan Aykroyd) as harem keeper. Severance is much easier than divorce, you see. Lee feeds on the youth, beauty, and kindness that Scott initially impressed him with, even finding kinder aspects of himself in the process. But it can never be enough. The love you get onstage is too much for any one person to give.
The key to Damon's Thorson is the pattern of behavior detailed above — thinking that we're smarter than we actually are about the iffy choices we make. There are moments where we follow the process of how love means ignoring your better judgment, and Damon makes it work. Through plastic surgery to lend the two more of a resemblance, an abortive adoption, and the endless little compromises that a long-term relationship requires to make it work, you see the two trying to make their own family — an option simply not available to two men at the time.
The beauty of Behind the Candelabra is that while it makes this frustration a central part of both Lee and Thorson, in no way does it attempt to excuse the way that Liberace has set up his life. He's a multimillionaire with delusions of grandeur and a short sexual attention span. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, we encounter two facets of Lee's M.O. — pianist Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), and Lee's houseboy Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay). Both of them know the score, but they manifest in completely different ways.
Jackson's Leatherwood is a stunning performance, all the more so because he only has five words of dialogue in the whole film. But his reaction shots, glances, and responses are magnificent. You can't speak subtext without it becoming text, so Jackson doesn't speak — and it's remarkable. Ramsay's Carlucci uses flesh and the word to define himself — running Lee's household in a white Speedo, a well-timed tray of food or serrated quip seemingly always at the ready, keeping things in balance with Liberace's revolving door boyfriends and lovers.
Carlucci is the kind of unsentimental, unjudgmental pragmatist that you see often in films that want to convince women to settle for whatever they can get. But here he's a survivor, the one person in the film who sees with perfect clarity where things are going and who understands the demands that this particular game makes of its players. He's so good in this film that you'll want to rewatch his tripartite starring role in 1996's Hellraiser: Bloodline, and any performance good enough to make you want to revisit the pre-Scream Miramax horror sequels of the '90s is truly something to treasure.
“If they really knew who we were,” Lee says to Scott, “they'd want nothing to do with us.” He's talking, literally, about animals, and why their love is indicative of stupidity, or naïveté at best. But he could just as easily be talking about his fans and/or making a case for the closet. With their money and their adoration, they've given Lee everything, but their demands have also kept him locked in emotional stasis. When the Thorson character (and we as the audience) are first introduced to Liberace, in a recreation of one of his Vegas headlining performances, the experience is so drenched in camp that he can't believe it when told by his then-fuckbuddy Bob (Scott Bakula, with the best hair in the whole film) that the audience has no idea that Liberace is gay. Bakula's character is, like Carlucci, a pragmatist, but he comes from a different place in the social hierarchy. Bob doesn't have to depend on the patronage or graces of another to pay his way, so he's removed from the systematic trade of Lee's life. That freedom makes it interesting to note what he will and won't put a shirt on for.
This film has a veritable dream team of a supporting cast, because there's still one more character yet to make himself known — Dr. Startz. A plastic surgeon, renegade pharmacist, and amateur dietician, Dr. Startz is a Cronenbergian magic man of vice and technology, and he's the best part Rob Lowe has had since the glory days of the Brat Pack. With a look that calls to mind Lucille Bluth, Helena Bonham Carter in the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and seemingly every Eurodisco frontman of the '80s that continental Europe ever produced, Lowe's Startz is absolutely hysterical and sinister in a particularly glorious fashion. As a surgeon, he helps make Lee and Thorson look more like one another; as a pharmacist, he introduces Scott to "the California diet" (pills — lots of them). It's the one-two punch that leaves Scott in an incredibly vulnerable place — a cycle of arguments and reconciliations fueled by drugs, philosophical differences, and the imbalance of power in their relationship.
That the film starts with HBO's late '70s logo and the analog swirl of Donna Summer's “I Feel Love” is a sign that we're in good hands. Production design dives deep into tacky opulence (or is it opulent tackiness?), giving us the glitz and the ridiculousness of life in the Liberace orbit. Everything gleams with rhinestone flares and is wrapped up in furs and high-contrast key lights.
Soderbergh, working as his own cinematographer and editor, does a remarkable job making these gaudy oases eventually seem normal. He certainly proves himself the Bergman of bathtubs with the film, allowing several important shifts in relationships to unfold in so very many sprawling tubs — which actually makes for a great unspoken fact about these scenes: One is simultaneously soaking in another's dirt as well as his own. At times, there are scenes that have that David Lynch's Hollywood feel, where the selling of souls and the drama of the act become cosmic collisions, with all horrors and tears accounted for by unseen forces with the minds of accountants and a taste for innocent flesh.
Never one to let subjectivity delude the viewer, Soderbergh wisely keeps Thorson's ongoing drug addiction as something external, so we experience his freakouts as sad outbursts, not stylized exorcisms. By the film's last third, as their relationship crumbles, it's so hard to see any of what Scott embodied at the beginning — even his face is not his own. The film is based on his autobiography, so a case can be made that it is overly biased in his favor. But even if that is the case, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Ref, Living Out Loud, The Bridges of Madison County) makes all the elements on display balance perfectly, finding what becomes a perfectly maintained melancholy sparkle.
There's been a lot of talk on the Internet regarding the film's portrayal of homosexuality, with several critics saying that the film depicts a homophobe's idea of what gay relationships are like, with predatory older men out to seduce youth and leave them a desiccated husk on the side of the road. It's silly to think that the film is making a blanket statement about all queer relationships, and such an ideology only makes sense if portrayals of rich men going through trophy wives are supposed to be an indictment of all heterosexual relationships.
You can't worry about how homophobes react to things, though; like any deluded folk, they don't think things through clearly — they merely start with a conclusion and gather whatever data supports it. You can't make blanket statements about anything if one of the variables is Liberace. There's simply no other combination of elements that you could equate him with. And what Douglas does with this singularity of gaudy everything makes him seem almost human — the glee with which he dives into a backroom videostore hookup should be a gut punch, yet it seems daffily endearing.
Maybe it's a case of the viewer going through the lengthy second cut, but there are moments of genuine tenderness where you see the madness of a life like Lee's. That tenderness makes the eventual/inevitable betrayal all the crueler — having compartmentalized affection for decades and turned lovers into employees, you could almost see him as operating without malice. But we've seen it all before, right there in the foreground with Billy and Carlucci.
Douglas has the voice down perfectly, so much so that he has been accused of making Liberace into a campy burlesque. But the evidence is there, all over YouTube, and the real-life Liberace would have probably responded, "Campy burlesque? Yes, please, and more of it!" There's a gusto to Douglas' work here, a tightrope walk on the razor-thin wire between caricature and incarnation, and you just can't underplay someone like Lee.
All at once Behind the Candelabra is a Disney romance, a Lifetime movie, a John Waters film, a Douglas Sirk melodrama, and a cautionary tale about deluding oneself, rhinestone Speedos, and how the games of power are played. If this is Steven Soderbergh's last feature film for a while, it will be the cinema's loss. That he had to go to HBO because no studio would touch the film is far more shocking than any of the film's depictions of sex, drugs, or social mobility.