Behind the Candelabra
9 p.m. Sunday, HBO
When the news broke in 1987 that Liberace, the famously flamboyant pianist, was dead at age 67 with what his manager had claimed was anemia brought on by a watermelon diet but was, in fact, AIDS, it made front-page headlines around the country.
It was a fitting tribute for a world-famous entertainer who just a few months earlier had played three weeks of sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall.
A generation later, the man known as “Mr. Showmanship” is widely seen more as an avatar of kitsch than a showbiz legend, someone whose sad death and campy image seem like relics of a less tolerant era. The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, which once welcomed 450,000 people a year, closed in 2010, no longer able to attract enough visitors to keep the lights on.
That’s set to change when “Behind the Candelabra,” starring Michael Douglas as a sexually voracious Liberace and Matt Damon as his coke-addled, much-younger lover, debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
More than 13 years in the making, the film chronicles the unconventional relationship between the men: Scott Thorson, a former foster kid who reshaped his face with plastic surgery to look more like Liberace but later filed a multimillion-dollar palimony suit against the star. The case, eventually settled for $95,000, generated unwanted publicity for someone whose popularity with millions of suburban homemakers depended on a carefully maintained facade of heterosexuality.
The last project that Steven Soderbergh, one of his generation’s most prolific and celebrated filmmakers, directed before going into supposed retirement from moviemaking, it landed at HBO after virtually every Hollywood studio passed on the material.
The film is based on “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace,” Thorson’s 1988 tell-all.
“I didn’t want to do a biopic in the traditional sense. I wanted to go narrow and deep,” Soderbergh says. “It’s Alice going down the rabbit hole. That’s a much more elegant way to get into Liberace’s life.”
“I haven’t been involved in a movie where there’s been so much attention beforehand,” says Douglas, sitting for a joint interview with his costar in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park.
In Soderbergh’s telling, Liberace is a bundle of contradictions – at once funny, generous, controlling and narcissistic – and Thorson the wide-eyed naif seduced by all the glamour.
“The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile,” Soderbergh says. “But it’d be the same story no matter what the gender: older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power. Add showbiz and you’ve got a pretty complex melange of elements.”
The film, rather than dwelling on the more eccentric aspects of Liberace and Thorson’s romance, delights in the mundane ones, portraying Lee and his “Baby Boy” as a loving couple prone to fighting over the same banal subjects – sex, careers, money – as many a husband and wife.
Heightening the comedic effect are performances from Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager and henchman Seymour Heller and especially Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon who gives Liberace a botched face-lift that renders him incapable of closing his eyelids (“This way you’ll be able to see people’s expressions when they see how fabulous you look!”).
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