Soon after Walter Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) meet, Scott, an animal trainer, volunteers to treat the famed pianist's poodle for blindness. The poodle's name is "Baby Boy." It's a showy stab of foreshadowing. Not too much later, Liberace is calling Scott "Baby Boy" and Scott is blinded by the riches that surround him. Much of the rest of "Behind the Candelabra" is pretty showy too: the costumes, the jewelry, the sets (some of it filmed at the actual Liberace estates), the prosthetics and the hair pieces. Yet, under the sharp direction of Steven Soderbergh, Douglas's and Damon's performances pull "Behind the Candelabara" back from the brink of camp. Against the glitter and glitz of Liberace's world, the decay of Scott and Liberace's relationship is particularly striking.
Liberace – or Lee, as he has people call him off stage — meets the much younger Scott after a Las Vegas concert and almost instantly takes him in has his latest lover. More than just a boy toy, Lee sees Scott as his actual boy, lavishing him with gifts, giving him a role in his act and even paying for plastic surgery that makes Scott look more like his piano-playing sugar daddy. Lee goes as far as to consider legally adopting his boyfriend. It's a sexual-paternal-marital hybrid of a relationship that confounds their attorneys once it disintegrates. But Scott, who comes from a broken family and grew up in and out foster care, willingly accepts all the various forms of love Liberace is giving.
Lee can be Liberace for forever. But Scott can only handle his new life for so long. Scott takes to drug addiction, pawning off Lee's shinny gifts for cocaine and pills. Lee meanwhile takes to a younger man. Scott's jealousy, justified all the same, sends him into a destructive tailspin.
"Behind the Candelabra" is based on the real-life Thorson's book of the same title. But neither he nor Liberace ever come off as a victim. As Scott, Damon transforms over the course of their relationship – and not just with the all sparkles and tanner and prosthetics Damon must don – but in the way he carries himself. Douglas, as Lee however, gets to stay just the same flamboyant Liberace. When Scott crumbles under the pressure of his flashy lifestyle, Lee can just discard him. Lee swears that his relationship with Scott is different than all the other boys, but once it's over, one can never know.
Not much time is spent on the "good times" between Scott and Lee. Scott goes quickly from being uneasy with their arrangement to overly comfortable with it. That there was ever earnest love between the two only seems to manifest once they realize that it is gone. It's hard to say whether their love was just as extravagantly superficial as all the other artifice of Liberace's existence. Nevertheless, Scott and Lee shine through as humans, not performers, each with his own moments of vulnerability and viciousness.
Douglas and Damon are supported by the performances of Rob Lowe as their doctor, who doles out plastic surgery and diet pills like its candy, (the deformity of his face makes him almost laughable in the role, but the relief is welcomed), and Dan Aykroyd as the accountant who brings some much needed seriousness to the fluffy Liberace posse.
"Behind the Candelabra" also offers some insight into Liberace's philosophy as an entertainer – a generosity that is self-centered, nonetheless. It's an attitude he tries to carry out with his personal relationships as well, much to the harm of his emotional recipients. A relationship with a lover, unlike an audience, is not a one-way street. But that's a lesson Lee never has to learn. Scott is not so lucky.
"Behind the Candelabra" premieres on HBO Sunday, May 26 at 9:00 p.m.