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Behind the Candelabra: HBO's Liberace biopic tinkles his ivories


Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra. HBO photos

HBO, latter day home of showy head cases in outlandish hairpieces, is back in the groove with Behind the Candelabra.

Phil Spector, its featured March attraction, starred a bewigged Al Pacino in the title role with Helen Mirren striving to make sense of him en route to the egomaniacal record producer’s murder trial.

Candelabra (Sunday, May 26th at 8 p.m. central) bursts with even more star power -- and toupees. Michael Douglas is Liberace and Matt Damon plays lover/confidant Scott Thorson in a two-hour film that brims with entertainment value whatever your mindset going in. The constellation of supporting players includes Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser, a deliciously absurd Rob Lowe and an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as “Lee’s” mother, Frances.

There’s also behind-the-camera firepower to spare. The late Marvin Hamlisch is musical director, with Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, the Ocean’s films) directing and longtime impresario Jerry Weintraub (The Karate Kid movies, His Way) putting it all together as executive producer. For the most part they’ve pulled it off, with Douglas absolutely fearless as the bejeweled, closeted, legendary Vegas bauble while Damon effectively navigates his way from semi-bumpkin to bubble baths to full-blown cocaine addict.

The much-awaited HBO treatment comes 25 years after CBS and ABC double-dipped in 1988 with dueling Liberace films that aired in the year after his Feb. 4, 1987 death from complications due to AIDS. Victor Garber starred in CBS’ Liberace: Behind the Music, with Maureen Stapleton as his mother, Frances. Andrew Robinson had the title role in ABC’s Liberace, in which Rue McClanahan played Frances. The Scott Thorson roles respectively were borne by relative unknowns Michael Dolan and Maris Vilainis, neither of whom had nearly the screen time Damon gets in HBO’s adaptation of Thorson’s 1988 book.

HBO covers the last 10 years of Liberace’s life, beginning with a chance 1977 meeting in a bar between Thorson and Bob Black (Bakula), who essentially is Liberace’s pimp. Thorson, a vulnerable bisexual animal trainer from a broken home, is agog at seeing Liberace work his keyboard magic during the film’s overly extended early excerpt from a typical Vegas performance.

“I love to give people a good time,” he tells Thorson during a between-shows trip to the showman’s dressing room. Douglas owns this part from that moment on, walking a balance beam between flat-out parody and a semblance of nuance. In short, the aging Liberace needs a friend, someone to watch over him at home and onstage. Long, champagne-fueled soaks also are part of the bargain, in addition to frequent sex with a randy sugar daddy who’s had some work done both below the belt and above the neck.

“How do you stay hard for so long?” Thorson wonders at one point. Those aforementioned CBS and ABC movies weren’t about to touch that particular terrain.

Liberace also is a self-professed devout Catholic who had an epiphany when near death -- from kidney failure -- in the days after the Kennedy assassination. The film flashes back to a hospital visitation from a mystical, glowing nun. Despite his sexuality, “I was saved,” he tells Thorson. “Because God looks upon me with special favor.” Believe what you will.


Although intermittently serious-minded, Behind the Candelabra never becomes a drudge or a dirge. It’s a biopic with a voyeuristic bent. And how can it not be when the centerpiece is a pre-Elton John/Lady Gaga pathfinder who describes his home furnishings as “palatial kitsch?”

Most actors of Douglas’ stature wouldn’t dare submit themselves body and soul to a role fraught with Mommie Dearest peril. Douglas not only inhabits Liberace but deconstructs him in a scene where he stands flabbily in a towel without his overhead rug. There’s also a priceless look at a snoring, sound asleep Liberace whose eyes remain partly open after massive reconstructive surgery by Lowe’s Dr. Jack Startz.

A few words about Lowe. He’s never been better -- or funnier -- as a plastics man whose own face is stretched tighter than a $10 spending limit at a Vegas crap table. He richly deserves some sort of award for this -- although it won’t be from the American Medical Association. Watching Lowe sip a drink through a mouth hole the size of a straw is about as much fun as one can have at the movies.

Meanwhile, Aykroyd capably drops in and out as Liberace’s stern manager, Seymour Heller. And Reynolds makes the most of her two main scenes as Liberace’s mother, even if it could be just about anyone beneath all that camouflage.

Bakula’s Bob Black is a basically generic character, although he does have one of the film’s signature lines after an increasingly plump Thorson frets about both going under the knife (to be remade in Liberace’s image) and adhering to Dr. Startz’s supposedly safe diet of pills and booze. “Honey, in gay years, you’re Judy during the Sid Luft obese period,” Black tells him.

The Thorson role requires a not inconsiderable transformation, in both looks and temperament. And Damon pretty much handles this load, powering up down the stretch as a raging coke head who’s been both jilted and defrocked.

Some of the film’s transitions can be a bit abrupt, particularly Thorson’s ill-explained succumbing to nose candy. Liberace’s feelings for him remain strong, even as his eyes wander off to another young prize. But Thorson had been warned early on that everyone’s expendable.

Behind the Candelabra by and large is an uncompromising look at the private arrangement between a household name in public denial and a rube who came to enjoy his many and varied creature comforts. But the film backs off in the end, resorting to a somewhat trite denouement in which everybody’s happy -- through tears, of course.

Never mind, though. Douglas, Damon and company put on a crowd-pleaser that even Liberace couldn’t top during all those many-splendored stage performances. A film that could have been so very bad turns out to be pretty mah-velous.


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