Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and executive produced by Jerry Weintraub, this HBO Films drama recreates the glittering private world of Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flamboyant, phenomenally successful entertainer whose extravagant costumes, trademark candelabra, and elaborate stage shows made him the most bankable entertainer of his time. The story focuses on Liberace's tempestuous relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) in Las Vegas from 1977 to 1982 - a time when Liberace was at the peak of his popularity but remained closeted as a homosexual. Featuring a pair of electrifying performances by Douglas and Damon (the first time either has starred in an HBO production), Behind the Candelabra captures the essence of Liberace's appeal while reminding viewers how different attitudes were at the time, as few high-profile entertainers (including Liberace) could admit they were gay, at least in front of the public which made them stars.
Now that Behind the Candelabra, the HBO movie about the secret relationship between pianist/entertainer Liberace and former animal trainer Scott Thorson, has won three Emmys (including statues for best movie or miniseries, lead actor Michael Douglas, and director Steven Soderbergh), it's hard to imagine that this was once a film that no one wanted to make. "Too gay," they said. But after languishing in development for several years, and with Soderbergh, Douglas, and Matt Damon attached, the film finally premiered in 2013--and it is a triumph. Damon is thoroughly convincing as Thorson (whose book supplied the source material), the callow, not-especially-bright young man so susceptible to Liberace's charming, unctuous persuasions (things get nutty when Scott agrees to undergo extensive plastic surgery designed to turn him into a younger version of "Lee," as the pianist's friends call him). Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's dialogue is hilarious ("In gay years," one character tells Scott, "you're Judy during the Sid Luft obese period"), while Soderbergh's directorial choices are also amusing. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is clearly having a field day: Rob Lowe (as the cosmetic surgeon) and Debbie Reynolds (as Liberace's mother) gleefully chew the scenery, while Scott Bakula and Dan Aykroyd are entertaining as well. But this is Douglas's show, and he steals it. His performance isn't a caricature. Nor is it a parody, or an impersonation; the real Liberace, a guy whose name was seemingly always preceded by "flamboyant," was such an over-the-top character that Douglas merely has to play it straight, so to speak. In the process, he sheds light not only on Liberace's manipulative tendencies ("Scott, why don't you let me decide what's important?") but also his vulnerabilities--especially at the end, when he and Thorson have one last poignant meeting following a bitter falling out. The filmmakers also have something valuable to say about gay culture during a period when celebrities like Liberace and Rock Hudson tried desperately to stay in the closet, especially after contracting AIDS. --Sam Graham