There’s really no better way to spend a sunny, Sunday afternoon in Manchester in June – in my humble and correct opinion – than in the dark. Not everyone likes the sun, you know. In fact, there are roughly 50 people who agree and are sat in Cornerhouse‘s Cinema Two watching Steven Soderbergh’s film about the man who proclaimed he’d only play “classical music with the boring parts left out”.
It’s 1977 and Liberace (Michael Douglas) is at the height of his fame, playing to sell-out audiences in Las Vegas. Enter stage left the handsome, young animal-trainer and aspiring veterinarian, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) with a male companion – and thus begins a torrid love affair kept secret until the pianist’s death from AIDS in 1987.
Based on his memoir, Thorson’s story explores the hidden world of a star whose fame provided the excuse to keep quiet about his homosexuality. Liberace, according to Thorson, was fearful of upsetting his fans and, less so, of upsetting God (he was a devout Catholic). But possibly the fear of losing the multi-million dollar life to which he’d grown accustomed was the real reason he kept schtum.
Thorson is 17 when he meets the 57-year-old Liberace and what begins as a camp and quick-witted portrayal of the glitz and glamour of a self-obsessed, controlling genius develops into a tender love story, and finally a painful descent into a horrid break-up.
The entire cast give compelling performances. Damon is delicious as the young lover who starts as an unassuming boy and later turns monster – created, in part, by his lover. Thorson is a jealous, drug-fuelled, paranoid, pill-popping thief rejected by his famous partner who moves onto younger models without ruffling a feather boa. Douglas is resplendent as Liberace; playing the late, great virtuoso with just enough camp and a ton of charisma. Supporting cast, too, are impressive. Dan Ackroyd is the acid-tongued manager, Debbie Reynolds, his mother, and an almost unrecognisable Rob Lowe as the tight-faced plastic surgeon.
Liberace, to all intents and purposes, is a generous and loving man as long as the people around him play by the rules. His fame is worth more than any relationship and everyone knows it. It’s a rather claustrophobic existence: Thorson and Liberace rattling around the mansion with a ton of pooches, buckets of the finest champagne and the gaudiest of bling-rings. But they never go out and no one really visits save for Liberace’s business advisers.
It is well-documented that Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror in 1959 for suggesting he might be gay. His estate purported he had died from a heart attack which, after an autopsy, was found to be untrue. His secrets and lies were well protected.
Is Thorson’s story 100 per cent truthful? Was Liberace quite so callous with men’s hearts? Did his entourage protect him and disregard Thorson’s life? As the saying goes, there’s your side of the story, there’s mine and then there’s the truth. For the purposes of Behind the Candelabra, the absolute truth doesn’t matter so much. Why let it get in the way of a good story? And this is a great story. Just ask the 50 people who sat with me in the dark. We didn’t need the sun, we had the stars.
Review by Lucia Cox
Where: Cornerhouse, Oxford Road, Manchester
More info: www.cornerhouse.org