If Steven Soderbergh really is done with directing films, as he claims he is, he's gone out on a small but graceful note. His latest, and supposedly last, movie is the biopic/romance Behind the Candelabra, premiering this Sunday on HBO. Yes, it's a made-for-television movie (though it is competing at Cannes), and in that regard comes across rather slight. It ultimately feels only glancing, too. That's a common problem with biopics, the span of years requiring a series of quick vignettes, never really letting us pause and reflect. But, Behind the Candelabra is also a strangely sweet and refreshingly honest depiction of a gay relationship, rococo and ridiculous as the setting might be.
Oh, right, the movie is about Liberace (Michael Douglas), that great, gaudy old showman who had a taste for the decadent but could back it up with serious piano skills. Candelabra specifically focuses on his late-career Las Vegas days and his relationship with a young man named Scott Thorson, who worked as his "right-hand man" and was treated alternately as a lover and a son. The May-December nature of the relationship — Thorson was 18 when he met a 57-year-old Liberace in 1976 — may seem a bit scandalous at first, but a genuine romance does develop, with Liberace and Scott settling into a coupled hominess as cozy and touching as any other relationship. It may help that Thorson is played by 42-year-old Matt Damon instead of a teenager, but mostly the film stokes our affection by handling sexual and social matters truthfully and casually, the particulars of these characters' lives are shown as straightforwardly as any other movie couple's. Soderbergh has made a balanced and often kind film, one that doesn't judge or condemn, even when Lee, as Scott calls him, does some pretty low things.
When first introduced to Liberace, Scott is living with his loving foster parents with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. He's impressed by Liberace's lavish lifestyle, the flair and showmanship he brings to his life both onstage and off, but he's wary of it, too. His defenses don't hold out for long, though. Liberace is oddly seductive enough that pretty soon Scott is working for Lee, living with Lee, letting him dress him in insane outfits, and, most drastic of all, undergoing extensive plastic surgery to look more like a younger version of the older man. There is a hint of predation in the air, Scott getting a warning from a jealous house boy that Liberace will tire of him and find another toy, but Scott's mincing benefactor is also sensitive and fragile, there's a loneliness in all his excess that Scott is drawn to. Soderbergh and his screenwriter Richard LaGravenese have created a thoroughly credible relationship, albeit one built on a peculiar and rickety foundation of, if not quite codependency, certainly inequity. But they seem happy, they are happy, and it's charming, and heartening, to watch Douglas and Damon so earnestly play at love.
There is nothing squeamish or leering about Behind the Candelabra, and I wish I didn't have to say in 2013 that that's remarkably refreshing. But, well, it is. Both Douglas and Damon are fully committed without succumbing to the ludicrous gilding of their surroundings. To his great credit, Douglas deftly avoids making Liberace a freak, instead showing us not just the obvious yearning in all of his opulence, but the lightheartedness of it too. Though his life was secretive and in some ways sad, it certainly wasn't all fakery masking deep shame or pain. He genuinely liked all of his silly stuff -- and he was aware of its silliness. This is not a movie about the horrors of the glass closet. Though we do see the drug-fueled downfall of the relationship and Liberace wasting away from AIDS, Behind the Candelabra is more a celebration of a strange and vivid life and the decent guy who was briefly caught in its occasionally precarious orbit. There's that typical Soderberghian light touch, but this time it draws us in rather than rendering the film chilly. Some credit is owed to LaGravenese's compassionate script, which only falters into soapiness on a few occasions.
Soderbergh has filled out the cast nicely, as usual. Debbie Reynolds makes a memorable impression in two scenes as Liberace's vaguely disapproving mother. And Scott Bakula is virtually unrecognizable as a suave fellow who seems to work as Liberace's boy fixer. Other welcome faces pop up — Dan Akroyd, Nicky Katt, even Paul Reiser — and then there's Rob Lowe's face, a glazed rictus of '70s doped-out-ness, fitting as he's playing Liberace's shifty plastic surgeon. Lowe's appearance borders on the cartoony, but again it's not a cheap jab at the plastic emptiness of Las Vegas or the 1970s, he's just a weird guy that Liberace knows. Speaking of that plastic emptiness, Soderbergh has always had a special gift for filming Las Vegas; he manages to somehow make it glowing instead of garish. The light here is warm and rosy and fuzzy, nicely evoking the look of old Liberace recordings.
What the film lacks in depth or insight — we sorta just bop along until we don't — it makes up for by being breezy but not blithe. These are real people we're dealing with here, not caricatures or symbols. Soderbergh and company treat this story, which is based on Thorson's own memoir, with compassion instead of easy condescension. For that I'm a fan of Behind the Candelabra, a delicate, affectionate little kiss goodbye from a beguiling but often detached director. I guess he had a heart after all.