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Michael Douglas, Matt Damon shine in captivating Liberace movie

Michael Douglas plays Liberace Matt Damportrays his younger lover Scott ThorsHBO's 'Behind Candelabra' which airs Sunday. | HBO

Michael Douglas plays Liberace and Matt Damon portrays his younger lover Scott Thorson in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra" which airs Sunday. | HBO

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‘BEHIND THE CANDELABRA’ ★★★1/2

8 to 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO

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Updated: June 23, 2013 6:24AM



Michael Douglas and Steven Soderbergh were working on the film “Traffic” when the director asked Douglas if he’d ever thought about playing Liberace.

“I looked at him and I thought, ‘Is this guy messing with me?’ ” Douglas told TV critics in January, more than a dozen years after Soderbergh first broached the subject.

The actor “immediately sort of launched into an impromptu impression of him that was excellent,” recalled Soderbergh, who tucked away the idea of a Liberace film in the back of his mind as he tried to figure out what shape the story should take.

“I didn’t want to do a traditional biopic, and I didn’t know what the angle was,” Soderbergh said.

His aha moment came while reading Scott Thorson’s 1988 autobiographical tell-all chronicling a tempestuous five-year love affair that began in 1977 between Thorson, then 18, and the larger-than-life piano virtuoso 40 years his senior. That book became the basis for the new HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra,” touted as Soderbergh’s feature-film swan song.

Matt Damon co-stars as Thorson, whose riveting transformation takes him from a denim-and-flannel-wearing would-be veterinarian to a bedazzled boy toy destroyed by decadence and drugs. Douglas plays Liberace the way Liberace played the piano, with an intoxicating mix of gusto, showmanship and irrefutable skill. Half the fun of “Behind the Candelabra” is watching these two Hollywood heavyweights deftly tackle roles that could have been career-enders not that long ago.

The film, like many romantic relationships, starts off lighthearted and fun before its dark descent. Thorson is introduced to the world-famous entertainer backstage after one of his signature, over-the-top Las Vegas shows. Before long, they’re bonding in a hot tub and Thorson is up to his ears in a mirrored world of furs, frescoes and Austrian crystals.

The movie’s ostentatious sets and wardrobe capture Liberace’s taste for all things extravagant. Some footage was filmed in the entertainer’s restored Los Angeles penthouse. Much of the memorabilia came from the now-shuttered Liberace Museum in Vegas.

A couple of Wisconsin natives (“My first time — he was a Green Bay Packer,” the musician confides), Liberace and Thorson are damaged souls who turn to each other for salvation and sex. Their relationship is predictably dysfunctional but nonetheless fascinating to watch.

Having bounced around the foster-care circuit, Thorson is desperate for a father figure. Liberace is all too happy to oblige, offering to adopt Thorson and ordering up plastic surgery to mold his young lover into his own likeness. Can’t get more narcissistic than that. Liberace also goes under the knife in some plastic surgery scenes that make “Hannibal” look tame.

“Will I be able to close my eyes?” Liberace asks after one of his operations.

“Not entirely, but this way you’ll always be able to see people’s expressions when they see how fabulous you look,” responds Rob Lowe as the star’s suitably smarmy surgeon.

The supporting cast does a lot to pump up the humor and lend just the right amount of camp into what ultimately is a tragic, twisted tale. (A tale, it should be pointed out, that’s told largely from the point of view of a troubled man behind bars in Reno, Nev., charged with burglary and identity theft after going on a spending spree in February with someone else’s credit cards.)

Dan Aykroyd nails it as Liberace’s world-weary manager and fixer. Cheyenne Jackson (“30 Rock”) is quietly hilarious as Thorson’s precursor, acutely aware that he’s past his sell-by date.

Debbie Reynolds, a longtime friend of Liberace, is virtually unrecognizable playing the musician’s demanding mother. In one scene she notes that Liberace, who weighed 13 pounds at birth, had a twin who was born dead.

“Even in the womb, he wanted more than anyone else,” she says.

“Behind the Candelabra” makes only passing reference to much of Liberace’s life outside of Thorson. Occasionally clunky exposition is used to explain seminal moments, such as the pianist’s renal failure that’s relayed in a bizarre hallucination-flashback. Given the source material and time constraints, Soderbergh was smart to keep the focus on Liberace and Thorson’s roller-coaster relationship. It’s a relationship that Liberace insisted on keeping hidden to maintain the illusion of heterosexuality — a concept that seems ludicrous (Liberace? Straight?) and more than a bit antiquated when viewed through a contemporary lens.

“I wanted to make a film to show how we’ve grown,” said executive producer Jerry Weintraub. “Being gay has lost its social stigma.”

Ironically, “Behind the Candelabra” wound up on HBO and not in U.S. movie theaters because domestic distributors reportedly felt the content was too gay to appeal to a broad audience. It premiered Tuesday at the Cannes Film Festival and is in the running for the Palme d’Or. It will have a theatrical release abroad.



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