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An Opulent HBO Biopic Pulls Back The Curtain On The Tempestuous Love Life Of Liberace
on June 14, 2013
Even though I was quite young, I can still remember the infamous palimony suit filed by Scott Thorson against Liberace in 1982. The story created national headlines and scandal at a time when homosexuality wasn't discussed as openly as it might be today. Despite his flamboyant stage persona, Liberace was NOT out of the closet and did not acknowledge the intimacy of this relationship. That's part of what fueled the attention, further adding to the controversy and media scrutiny. I won't discuss the outcome for those new to Thorson's memoir "Behind The Candelabra," which is the source material for this prestigious HBO project. Academy Award winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) teamed with Oscar nominated screenwriter Richard La Gravenese (The Fisher King) to adapt Thorson's book. Headlined by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, "Behind the Candelabra" was certainly one of the most anticipated TV movies of the year. As you might expect, though, this is told from Thorson's perspective and is quite sympathetic to his viewpoint. Let's just say that we do not hear about his drug fueled involvement as a prime witness in the Wonderland murders (also in the early eighties) or his contemporary incarceration for suspected burglary and identity theft charges (he was recently bailed out of jail by the owner of Bunny Ranch brothel at the end of May). Even the movie's postscript just says that Thorson is currently residing in Reno when, in fact, he was in jail on the film's premiere.
That said, though, HBO's "Behind the Candelabra" is a handsomely produced and exquisitely acted piece of entertainment. By his very nature, Liberace was (and always will be) a fascinating and improbable success story. This expose peels back the curtain on a life of opulence, excess and eccentricity and is played as an extravagant tragedy: Boy meets legend, boy is seduced by wealth, boy is ruined by experience. Matt Damon plays Thorson with an eager optimism and an incredible naivete. A troubled kid shuttled through the foster system, Thorson is beguiled when introduced to Liberace. Liberace (Michael Douglas) is enchanted by this innocence and lack of pretension. A self-proclaimed bisexual, Thorson quickly shacks up with Liberace and the two have a blissful honeymoon period. But as the novelty wears off of the relationship, things get decidedly more weird. Thorson gets progressively more unstable by the explicit demands of the increasingly controlling Liberace. Their confused relationship wavers between the territories of lovers, employee and boss, father and son. I won't reveal any of the specific plot points, but this evolving dynamic fuels the heart of "Behind the Candelabra."
The exemplary cast includes Debbie Reynolds as Liberace's mom, Scott Bakula as the guy who introduces our central pair, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's protective manager, Rob Lowe as an extremely unorthodox doctor, and Cheyenne Jackson as a spurned lover. Each has nice moments. Reynolds doesn't have much to do, but scores in one pivotal scene. Aykroyd is particularly convincing and Lowe is inspired (and his makeup deserves an Emmy). But this is all really about Douglas and Damon. When I had heard that Douglas was cast, I didn't instantly see the connection. But he gets the mannerisms and speech patterns down well. Alternately hilarious and frightening, it's a completely unique performance that will undoubtedly be recognized as the award season rolls around. And Damon is also excellent as the emotional centerpiece of the story. His progression is well played and utterly believable.
I think that the technical merits of "Behind the Candelabra" also deserve special mention. The stage shows are recreated with precision. The make-up, costumes, and sets are all particularly noteworthy. The movie really does bring this experience to life from a visual perspective. And there is plenty of music as well, just what you'd want from a Liberace story! As with any biography, this isn't the definitive word on Liberace. It may, however, be as close as we're likely to get. Even to his death, Liberace was still not acknowledging a certain lifestyle. As the movie closes on an infamous Liberace performance, it is both chilling and sad. Whether you are a Liberace fan or not, this is a fascinating (if one-sided) look at the life of a one-of-a-kind entertainer. KGHarris, 6/13.