Every month, we spotlight a quintessential Las Vegas movie
Few entertainers are as synonymous with Las Vegas as Liberace, the flamboyant pianist who played lengthy residencies at hotel-casinos including the Riviera and the Las Vegas Hilton (now the Westgate). Liberace’s pop-culture image might not be as enduring as that of Elvis Presley or Celine Dion, but he’s captured perfectly in the underrated 2013 biopic “Behind the Candelabra.” Set during the last decade of Liberace’s life, it’s a sometimes sweet, sometimes tragic portrait of a man who embodied Las Vegas maximalism.
It’s also the story of Liberace’s assistant and lover, Scott Thorson, whose 1988 memoir serves as the movie’s source material. By focusing on the relationship between Liberace and Thorson, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese give the movie a more effective narrative structure rather than attempting to encompass Liberace’s entire life.
That approach also makes Las Vegas the primary setting for “Behind the Candelabra,” since that’s where Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott (Matt Damon) met and spent almost all of their time together. Many of Liberace’s personal possessions were loaned to the production by the Liberace Museum, and veteran Vegas musician Philip Fortenberry served as the double for Douglas in the scenes of Liberace playing piano.
Scott is instantly mesmerized by Liberace when a friend takes him on a trip from LA to Vegas to see Liberace’s show at the Hilton, and Liberace feels the same way when he meets Scott backstage. The two of them move in together almost immediately, living at Liberace’s lavish estate. Fittingly, exteriors for that gloriously gaudy home were shot at the equally extravagant home of fellow Vegas icons Siegfried and Roy (although interiors were filmed in California).
The much younger Scott becomes dependent on Liberace, both financially and emotionally, and while their relationship is obviously toxic, it is also often loving. Liberace, who remained closeted until his death from AIDS in February 1987, covers the true nature of their relationship by employing Scott for a range of positions, including dressing in a rhinestone-encrusted chauffeur’s outfit to drive Liberace onstage at the Hilton. Liberace even discusses adopting the adult Scott, which his lawyer informs him is legal in Nevada.
The dynamic between the charismatic entertainer and the wide-eyed dreamer is a microcosm of the Vegas balance of power, and there’s almost no division between Liberace’s “palatial kitsch” homes and the hotel-casinos where he performs. Liberace’s mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds in her final onscreen role) plays a slot machine in her son’s house and demands to be paid actual money when she wins.
When Scott attends Liberace’s funeral, several years after their acrimonious break-up and Scott’s subsequent lawsuit, he envisions the coffin and the church altar moving aside to reveal the stage at the Hilton, where Liberace gives his last performance before ascending to the heavens. The ideal afterlife for this consummate entertainer is an eternal spotlight in a Las Vegas showroom.
“Behind the Candelabra” is streaming on HBO Max.