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‘Behind the Candelabra’ Review: Sex, Lies & the Closet at Cannes

In competition at the festival, Soderbergh's honest, authentic rendering of the passionate, sometimes silly love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson is his best film in years

Michael Douglas hits a career high with Steven Soderbergh‘s masterful “Behind the Candelabra,” the love story about Liberace and Scott Thorson slated for an HBO debut on Sunday.

One of the best films to play in Cannes so far, it's really about the lengths gay men had to go in decades past to have a relationship that equaled marriage and the difficulty for an icon like Liberace to even admit he was gay at all.

Michael DouglasSoderbergh has made his best film in years, an honest rendering of a passionate, sometimes silly love affair between Liberace and the much younger Scott Thorson.

Plucked from obscurity when he was just 18, Thorson was immediately attractive to Liberace, and it wasn’t long before Liberace wanted him to move in and do whatever odd jobs were available — take care of his animals, for instance. What drew Scott into his world wasn’t so much the lure of money but the lure of love and family.

It would be easy to make this film a parody — let’s laugh at the funny, swishy gay men. But Soderbergh, Douglas and Matt Damon never slip into stereotypes. Sure, some of the things that happen on screen are funny: the clothes, the hair, the costumes, the cars, the dogs, the plastic surgery, the barely-clothed houseboy delivering Liberace food. This is life in the gaudy, glamorous extreme.

But the movie is good because it is authentic. Were it presented as one big joke, or as a vulgar character assassination of Liberace, it wouldn’t be effective, nor as moving as it ultimately is.

Much of that authenticity can be credited to the two leads – Douglas specifically, but Damon, too. Somehow, even dressed in outfits that can only be called costumes, neither actor ever loses the sense of who they really are. Liberace, as it turns out, was a pretty nice guy. Much of what drew Scott to Liberace was that kindness.

Soderbergh initially had the idea to put Douglas in the role of Liberace when the two worked together on “Traffic.” But it wasn’t until the director read Thorson’s book “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace” that it all clicked for the director, who won the Palme d'Or with his first movie, "sex, lies and videotape," in 1989. 

At some point watching the film, you forget you’re watching Michael Douglas at all. His voice, expressions, body language, movements — he entirely disappears. He speaks warmly, through a tight smile, and offers himself up without vanity. Flabby, aging, balding (Douglas really isn’t) — Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from unflattering angles, and Douglas doesn’t flinch. 

The film also makes fun of the plastic-surgery generation that believes the tighter you pull the skin the better you look. In Liberace’s world, in Vegas and Palm Springs, that’s the norm. In one spectacular cameo, Rob Lowe shows up as a plastic surgeon with his own tight face.

Matt DamonDamon is perfectly cast as Thorson, and is in his element as an actor playing characters like this: Tom Ripley in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Marc Whitacre in “The Informant.”

Thorson isn’t quite as quirky as those two characters — he’s more honest, for one thing. He’s not deceptive in the slightest, but there is an obtuseness to him. The two actors are so naturally affectionate and sexual with each other that they create a relationship that feels genuine.

The film will be released on HBO, since it was turned down for studio financing and distribution. That a movie as rich as “Behind the Candelabra” has been relegated to the small screen is one of the reasons Hollywood is slowly killing itself.