Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra is more than just a flashy, dramatic biopic and final bow for the retiring director -- it's a film that examines societal entitlement to the private lives of celebrities, and meditates on the dichotomy of what we're allowed to know, versus what we feel we should know.
In Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, famed piano player and showman Liberace (Michael Douglas) has a longtime relationship with a young man named Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Thorson, for those unfamiliar, is a bit of an opportunist. Raised by adoptive parents, Thorson met Liberace one night after a show and the two became smitten -- or rather, Thorson was dazzled by Liberace's wealth, and Liberace was enamored with Thorson's youthful body. In the film, Liberace moves Thorson into his luxe digs almost immediately, giving him the job of "personal assistant," which primarily entails being Liberace's confidant and lover, and entitles Thorson to a home of his own, clothing, fancy cars and plastic surgery to look more like Liberace.
The film, based on Thorson's own memoir (Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace), takes the audience behind the scenes of Liberace's bedazzled life and gives us privileged information about the star. We see him at one of his most vulnerable moments, in a scene that feels voyeuristic: Thorson, who has been living with Liberace for some time now, walks in on his lover in a towel, sans-toupee, in a way that he likely never intended for anyone to see him. Instead of embarrassment, Liberace seems relaxed and shrugs off his bald head. It's Thorson's reaction that mirrors what we should feel as viewers: we walked in on him in this private moment, and it's we who should feel ashamed.
Soderbergh is keenly aware of the line between what celebrities choose to share with their fans, and how their fans feel entitled to know every private and sensitive detail of the lives of their idols. In a later scene in the film, a jaded Thorson comes across Liberace's own book in a store, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. In it, Liberace details how he lost his virginity to an ice skater, when earlier in the film he told Thorson how he lost his virginity to a football player he met in a saloon. We smirk as Thorson smirks because we know that everything Liberace says in The Wonderful Private World of Liberace is merely a distraction -- much like Liberace's glamorous appearance, with capes covered in thousands of crystals and his fancy toupee, the information Liberace shares in his own book is meant to captivate and dazzle his audience, obscuring them from the real Liberace, the bald man in the towel like Oz behind his curtain; the man we shouldn't see.
Behind the Candelabra is a tricky film -- the entire narrative is based on Thorson's memoir, which was filled with private stories about his relationship with Liberace. The film feels invasive and voyeuristic because this is the life Liberace never chose to share with his fans, many of whom were adorable little old ladies who would likely have a stroke upon learning their beloved idol was bottoming for a blonde Adonis. The ultimate invasion of privacy comes late in the film, when Liberace dies of complications from AIDS. His manager (played by Dan Aykroyd in a role clearly intended for Elliott Gould) releases a public statement declaring that Liberace died from anemia induced by a watermelon diet, and as ridiculous as that sounds, it's the truth Liberace had decided to share with the public, and the truth we should have solemnly accepted. Instead, the coroner's office insists on launching their own investigation due to suspicions that Liberace's manager and personal physician were trying to hide the real cause of death. Upon obtaining tissue samples from Liberace's embalmed corpse (a horrific notion), the coroner's office determines that the star died from pneumonia brought about by the AIDS virus.
What purpose does this serve for anyone? There is no explicit gain to be had for either the coroner's office or the general public, other than the satisfaction of obtaining privileged information to feed a sense of entitlement. It's the kind of entitlement that pervades modern society, nursed by tabloid culture -- we feel as though we should know every detail about a celebrity's life, from their weight fluctuations to their plastic surgeries to their private divorces and break-ups. We want to see pictures of them with their children walking down the street, and we salivate over leaked photos of their nude bodies from their cell phones. This is not information we should be privy to, and it's not information they choose to share. Like Liberace, a movie star or musician has only one job: to entertain us. What they do when they're off the clock is none of our business unless they choose to share that privileged information with us, and we shouldn't be clamoring to investigate whether the details they divulged in an interview or official press release are true.
But pop culture has evolved to a point where we're nourishing this sort of entitlement by making people into celebrities in a backwards fashion. First they release a "private sex tape" or other "sensitive" materials, then they become famous. By removing the facade of privacy first, they are intimating to audiences that this information is not privileged -- it's a matter of public record.
When Liberace released The Wonderful Private World of Liberace, he was creating his own fiction. This is the truth he chose to share with the world, whether or not it was honest. When Thorson released Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, he was shattering an image that wasn't his to shatter. When you enter into a relationship with someone, you're entering into a sort of unspoken contract: you might share details of your relationship with your trusted friends in moments of private confidence, but you're not going to expose your significant other's most vulnerable moments to the entire world. We all have different shades of our true selves -- there's the people we are with our friends, the people we are with our families, and the people we are with our loved ones. There's also the people we are in private, totally open and naked with nothing to hide. When we choose someone to share that side of ourselves with, they should feel honored. What separates us from celebrities is that we don't have the entire world watching, waiting for us to make a mistake or to look bad in public (though thanks to Twitter, we think we do).
Soderbergh presents the story of Liberace knowingly, understanding that this is a private story with information that never should have been ours to learn, and knowing that we will watch and devour it hungrily because we can't help but feel entitled to knowledge that doesn't belong to us. But the greatest part of Behind the Candelabra is remembering how many sides there are to every story: Liberace's truth, Thorson's truth, and the truth that lies behind the candelabra -- that which we'll never fully know, and never should. Liberace gave us a front row seat to his show, not to his personal life. And though Thorson's story tries to remove the glittery veneer and illuminate the life of an eccentric gay man with flaws just like the rest of us, Soderbergh reminds us that Thorson's version of the story isn't that different from Liberace's: they both use excess to obscure various versions of the same truth. It's just different kinds of excess.