In 1977, 18-year-old Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who works as an animal trainer for films, meets Bob Black (Scott Bakula), a Hollywood producer, in a gay bar in Los Angeles. At Black's urging, he leaves his adopted home in search of better-paying work. Black introduces Thorson to Liberace (Michael Douglas), who takes an immediate liking to the handsome younger man. Liberace invites the two backstage and then to his luxurious home in Las Vegas. Thorson observes that one of Liberace's beloved dogs is suffering from a temporary form of blindness, and with his veterinary assistant background, informs the famous pianist that he knows how to cure the condition. After treating the dog, Thorson becomes Liberace's "assistant" at the performer's request. Thorson also becomes employed as Liberace's stage chauffeur, driving a Rolls-Royce limousine onto the stage for Liberace's grand entrances.
Thorson moves in with Liberace and becomes his lover. At this point, Thorson says that he is bisexual because he is also attracted to women. Liberace is sympathetic, informing him that he wanted and tried to love women, but was exclusively attracted to men. He relates a story of a "divine healing" in which a "messenger" informed him that God still loved him.
It gradually becomes clear that Liberace is trying to mold Thorson into a younger version of himself. He asks his plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe), to transform Scott's face to more closely resemble his own and makes an unsuccessful attempt to formally adopt him. Thorson soon turns to drugs as he becomes more angry and frustrated with Liberace trying to control him as well as Liberace's obsession to publicly hide their romance at any cost.
By 1982, Thorson's increasing drug abuse and Liberace's interest in younger men, including dancer Cary James (Boyd Holbrook), creates a rift that ultimately destroys their relationship. When Liberace begins visiting pornographic peep shows and suggests that they each see other people, Thorson becomes upset. Thorson retains an attorney to seek his financial share of the property by suing Liberace for over $100,000,000 in palimony. As a result, Liberace ends their formal partnership and involves himself with his most recent, and much younger, "assistant". In 1984, Thorson's palimony lawsuit starts where he gives details about his five-year romance with the entertainer, while Liberace flatly denies any sexual relationship.
Not long thereafter, in December 1986, Thorson receives a phone call from Liberace telling him that he is very sick with what is later revealed to be AIDS and that he would like Thorson to visit him again. Thorson agrees and drives to Liberace's retreat house in Palm Springs, where he and Liberace have one last, emotional conversation. Liberace dies a few months later in February 1987. Thorson attends Liberace's funeral, in which he imagines seeing Liberace performing one last time with his traditional flamboyance, before being lifted to Heaven with a stage harness.Michael Douglas as Liberace
Matt Damon as Scott Thorson
Dan Aykroyd as Seymour Heller
Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz
Debbie Reynolds as Frances Liberace
Scott Bakula as Bob Black
Boyd Holbrook as Cary James
Tom Papa as Ray Arnett
Nicky Katt as Mr. Y
Cheyenne Jackson as Billy Leatherwood (based on Liberace's protégé Vince Cardell)
Paul Reiser as Mr. Felder
David Koechner as Adoption Attorney
Peggy King as TV Vocalist (When Liberace Winks at Me)
Director Steven Soderbergh first spoke with Michael Douglas about the idea of doing a Liberace film during the production of Traffic (2000), but had trouble figuring out an angle for it that would differentiate it from a traditional biopic. In the summer of 2008, Soderbergh contacted screenwriter Richard LaGravenese with the idea of adapting Scott Thorson's memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. In September 2008, the project was officially announced with Matt Damon close to signing on to play Thorson and Douglas in talks to portray Liberace.
The following year, Douglas officially signed on to play Liberace alongside Damon. The film spent several years in development while Soderbergh had difficulty securing funding, with Hollywood studios saying it was "too gay". During this time, Douglas and Damon remained adamant that they would appear in the film despite its lengthy development. Ultimately, the film was picked up by HBO Films and shot on a budget of $23 million over thirty days in 2012.
While promoting the film, Soderbergh went on to explain that this would be his last directorial effort for the time being. It is also the last film to feature a musical score by composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died on August 6, 2012.
The film received critical acclaim. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 95% based on reviews from 94 film critics with an average score of 8.2 out of 10. The consensus reads: "Affectionate without sacrificing honesty, Behind the Candelabra couples award-worthy performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon with some typically sharp direction from Steven Soderbergh." Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 82 based on 30 reviews.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film 4/5 stars, saying "As a black comedy, and as a portrait of celebrity loneliness, Behind the Candelabra is very stylish and effective, and Damon and Douglas give supremely entertaining performances."
The film, shown for the first time on American television on May 26, 2013, was watched by 2.4 million US viewers. A further 1.1 million tuned in to watch the repeat immediately after, bringing viewership to 3.5 million in total. When the film debuted on HBO, it achieved the highest ratings for a TV film since 2004.
At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Baby Boy (a dog that appeared in the film as one of Liberace's pet poodles) won the Palm Dog Award. This is not an official part of the festival but takes place at the same time. Behind the Candelabra won the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Movie or Miniseries and TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries, and Specials. The film won two Golden Globe Awards and eleven Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Douglas.