Steven Soderbergh’s swan song? I doubt it. But if true, it’s not a bad one to go out on as a film director. At times, it’s downright wonderful. Too bad it ultimately fails to overcome some typical bio-pic clichés. But even though originally I had quite a few reservations when I heard Michael Douglas would play Liberace…I stand humbly corrected. It’s one of the finest performances of his career. Last year, I predicted months in advance that Julianne Moore would win an Emmy for HBO’s “Game Change”. Let’s make it two seasons in a row, because Kirk’s kid is going to get one this time. His performance could have fallen prey to so many obvious roadblocks…with extreme camp taking up the #1 slot. But damned if Douglas doesn’t reign it all in. His subtlety is commendable, with just enough of the occasional histrionics. And his vulnerability as the aging Liberace—flabby sans his sequined shirts, and ancient without his expensive hairpieces—is astonishing in its touching humanization of the flamboyant Vegas showman. Make no mistake, awareness of Douglas’ recent major health concerns(due to stage IV cancer treatments)certainly add pathos to an already great portrayal. But when he starts garnering awards for this film—don’t belittle it by saying it is because “he was so sick”. He’s simply superb and worthy of the forthcoming accolades. Douglas may even have won an Oscar if this was released theatrically.
Almost matching him is a terrific Matt Damon as Scott Thorson. Mr. Thorson wrote the book of the same name upon which this screenplay is based. His tale of meeting the world’s most famous piano player while barely 18 years old is utterly fascinating and totally convincing in the hands of the 42 year-old Mr. Damon. One trick is never referring to the actual ages of either character. All we are asked to believe in the film is that Lee(as Liberace is addressed by his friends)is an aging, closeted queen and that Thorson is his much younger eventual lover, friend, protegé and even son(it’s presented that Liberace at least went through the motions of adopting the orphaned Thorson)! Introduced to the gaudy, multi-millionaire by an aging hippie friend(a nifty turn from Scott Bakula as the character of Bob Black), Thorson is rapidly swept up into a life of extraordinary opulence. He moves into Lee’s lavish Las Vegas mansion soon after beginning a sexual relationship with the world-famous man. Signs of things to come are etched in Thorson’s eyes as he watches Lee’s former live-in move-out(a strong, almost wordless performance from Cheyenne Jackson). Champagne, servants, furs, expensive jewelry soon become the norm for the previously destitute Thorson. He even becomes part of the Vegas act, driving Liberace on stage in a white limo. Five mostly happy years go by, but at some point the loving relationship begins to sour. After putting on weight from his constant diet of rich foods, Lee hooks Scott up with sleazy plastic surgeon and nutritionist Dr. Jack Startz(a heavily made-up and creepy Rob Lowe). Thorson not only regains his figure, but he has facial reconstruction to make him look more like Liberace—upon Lee’s suggestion, of course. But Scott gets hooked on the amphetamines that help him lose the weight, and Lee begins to lose patience with the constantly drugged-up Thorson. And the writing is on the wall when Lee begins talking to a new young man…who looks as starry-eyed as Thorson was when he first arrived on the scene.
Douglas and Damon are excellent together in roles that require some provocative frolicking between two heterosexual actors. You would think this proof positive that “we’ve come a long way”, until you hear Soderbergh lament in interviews that the major studios passed on giving the movie a theatrical release because it was “too gay”(it did, however, premiere on the big screen this month at Cannes). HBO to the rescue! Aiding Soderbergh’s direction is a solid script from Richard LaGravenese. Plus, there’s some fine character work from Dan Aykroyd as manager Seymour Heller and an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother, Frances. I do wish that Soderbergh exhibited a bit more directorial flair—“Behind the Candelabra” gets dangerously close to becoming a risqué T.V. movie, at times. Also, some of the final scenes tend to really lay on the schmaltz. But it’s a compulsively watchable portrait of a man who denied being a homosexual, despite all evidence to the contrary, right up until his premature end from AIDS(Liberace’s 1987 demise is claimed, via his manager, to be due to heart failure). And Douglas’ tour-de-force, along with Damon’s marvelous support, make “Behind the Candelabra” an absolute must-see. Grade: B+