Every child loves a fairytale, and every adult suffers a little heartbreak when they realize they’ll never get to have one. Scott Thorson, it seems, is the world’s only exception to that rule. For his story, told in Steven Soderberg’s new HBO film Behind The Candelabra, is nothing short of a Cinderella story — with a lot more glitter.
From the start all the elements are in place: Scott (Matt Damon), the wayward orphan, encounters Liberace (Michael Douglas) in his full, fur-lined regalia. Welcomed into the palace, he soon finds himself wearing slippers, not of glass, but of gold. If it’s not quite love at first sight, it certainly is at first purchase.
Liberace’s story is one of a wholly different time: an era when celebrities had the upper hand over tabloids and their public images could be more carefully curated. It was also a time when glamour reigned supreme (a septuagenarian in a rhinestone-covered fox-fur coat with a four-foot train? Just another night at Studio 54). Still, Liberace’s ability to maintain both his reputation as a lady’s man, and his open relationships with men was a constant juggling. He was, after all, the ultimate showman. He’d insist on staying closeted to the world at large, but his closet was about 30,000 square feet, and covered in Austrian crystals.
And he always had company in there, as Scott soon finds out. Even as their relationship blooms, the ex isn’t even out the door. In a brief role as Liberace’s cast-off lover Bobby Leatherwood, Cheyenne Jackson haunts the background of early scenes like a cranky, resentful ghost. While he has only one spoken line, the script directions are clear: Bobby nods bitterly. Bobby packs his bags bitterly. Bobby gets in a cab and drives off very, very bitterly.
From then on the magical tale continues. Scott tumbles headlong into a dazzling life of love, puppies, and only the occasional compromise. Will he go on a pill-addled diet to get down to the weight that Liberace likes? Fine. A little involuntary plastic surgery? Okay. And what about inviting a newer, younger man into the picture?
As the dandy prince, Michael Douglas absolutely nails it. Embracing both the glamour and the wrinkles, his portrayal of Liberace is possibly the greatest performance of his career. At the very least it’s his greatest leap — until now, the man made an entire career playing the Suit Guy. That’s not to discount Matt Damon, who is able to pull off the part of a wide-eyed teenager, then evolve into a haggard middle-aged man over the course of the film. Like his real-life counterpart, Damon let’s Douglas steal the spotlight, but never lets us forget it’s his eyes we’re looking through.
In his life with Liberace, Scott Thorson got to see what happens when a fairytale ends, but life still goes on. After rising to those heights, there’s no way the fall won’t hurt. Thorson’s journey eventually led him into a life of addiction and crime. He’s helping to promote this film (based on his memoir) from the Washoe County jail. That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate those years, which he describes as the happiest of his life. After all, who wouldn’t want to live a dream come true, even knowing they would have to wake up one day?
Photos: courtesy of HBO