Michael Douglas, Matt Damon co-star in HBO’s stunning, tragic “Behind the Candelabra” biopic about Liberace – The Denver Post

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Michael Douglas plays over-the-top showman Liberace in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra." He was the world's highest-paid entertainer for decades. He died in 1987 at 67 of AIDS.

Michael Douglas, right, as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra," premiering Sunday.

There’s much more than the spectacle of a famous, closeted life draped in rhinestone-and-feather excess to be gleaned from HBO Films’ “Behind the Candelabra,” a superbly acted and exquisitely rendered gem itself.
The backstage tell-all concerns Liberace and the handsome young man to whom he acted as father-brother-lover during a five-year relationship. Their tragic romance was strange, but it remains strangely revealing of a larger cultural blind spot.
Director Steven Soderbergh masterfully illuminates a now outdated sense of shame and denial, the desperate fear of aging, the craving for spectacle that was a stereotype embodied by Władziu Valentino Liberace or “Lee” as his friends knew him. Yes, Liberace was a pathetic “old queen,” as his young lover says more than once. But, really, who made him that way?
“Behind the Candelabra,” premieres Sunday (locally 7-9 p.m. on HBO) after opening at Cannes last week.
The film is fun but tragic, like the personality at its center, and an unpleasant reminder of the times that produced him.
The stunning and quite intimate performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are award-worthy. The piece is more explicit than viewers might expect.
The supporting cast, including Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe and Dan Aykroyd, is top-notch, staying just this side of camp. Lowe, as sleazy plastic surgeon Dr. Startz whose skin is so tight he can scarcely open his eyes, is a perfect parody of 1970s Hollywood. Reynolds, as Liberace’s Polish-accented mother Frances, is a kick. Only Aykroyd trespasses into shtick as the showman’s gruff manager Seymour Heller.
The kitschy costumes so synonymous with Liberace are replicated along with the locations and props. The music, adapted by the late Marvin Hamlisch, is a constant fleeting keyboard undercurrent, a reminder of Vegas shows gone by.
As over-the-top as Liberace was on and offstage in the repressed 1950s, the film observes that his celebration of excess was applauded as oddly all-American. He was the world’s highest-paid entertainer for decades.
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” he famously said.
The yipping of his little dogs fills the soundtrack just as the mirrored surfaces, the gaudy antiques and ornate painted murals of his home fill the frame.
Douglas masters the voice and mannerisms (including hands on keyboard) of his character in a transforming turn, although a particular sweetness that was part of Liberace’s presentation is missing.
“I love to give people a good time,” Liberace said. His smile was so innocent, so well-meaning, it was clear he meant it. Douglas never seems quite so cherubic. Still, he captures the essence.
Here, whether traipsing into an adult bookstore and video booth emporium in a full-length fur, or watching gay porn with a little white poodle in bed, or explaining the vision that inspired his devout Catholicism, Liberace is shown to be the expert manager of his image. Nobody loved his stardom more than he did.
Damon, although significantly older than Scott was when he and Lee met, inhabits the chauffeur-bodyguard-boyfriend role seamlessly. He devolves from boy-toy to drug addict to jilted ex-, exuding his frustration from every pore.
What stays with you after the mesmerizing two hours is the eager collusion of the majority of Americans at the time, who were able to will themselves into unknowingness. The “secret” of Liberace’s sexuality, laughable as it seems now, is a tragic example of a dark period in history. The film observes the easy manipulation of public opinion at the time. Phony stories were planted in the press about Liberace’s romantic interest in actress-skater Sonja Henie and others. Fans chose to see only what they wanted to see.
Now that professional athletes are beginning to talk about their homosexuality, perhaps it won’t be so shocking for audiences to hear that Liberace’s first gay encounter was with a Green Bay Packers football player.
The film focuses on the unequal relationship — suffice to say both Thorson and Liberace were looking for some kind of acceptance that eluded them; the 40-years-older Liberace ultimately had Thorson endure a chin implant in order to more closely resemble the young Liberace. After their bitter falling out, Thorson sued for “palimony.”
Soderbergh grants Liberace his due as a talented pianist and showman. He shows us the adoring fans, namely middle-aged women, responding enthusiastically to Liberace’s Vegas act.
“It’s funny this crowd would like something this gay,” young Scott (Damon) marvels at his first Liberace concert, the night the hunk will be introduced to the star backstage at the Las Vegas Hilton.
“Oh, they have no idea he’s gay,” his friend Bob Black (Bakula) says. And that’s the joke for the whole of his life, the whole of the film, the whole of a closeted generation.
The intention, Soderbergh has said, was not to treat the man as a cartoon but to get inside the five-year love affair Liberace had with Scott Thorson (the film is based on Thorson’s autobiography of the same title). He succeeds admirably.
Liberace died in 1987 at age 67 of complications from AIDS.
The film has no epilogue, but the tragic tale continues: A recent profile of Thorson in the New York Times notes that Thorson won’t get to watch the film, as he’s currently being held in aReno jail for burlary and identity theft, without access to HBO.
Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, jostrow@denverpost.com or twitter.com/ostrowdp
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