‘Behind the Candelabra’ portrays Liberace love story with sly intelligence

Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, lover of Liberace, played by Michael Douglas, in "Behind the Candelabra" Credit: HBO
Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, lover of Liberace, played by Michael Douglas, in “Behind the Candelabra.”
Credit: HBO

‘Behind the Candelabra’
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas
Premieres on HBO this Sunday, May 26
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Behind the Candelabra” is not the first TV movie about flamboyant piano man Liberace and his secret decade-long relationship with his “chauffeur” Scott Thorson. In 1988, a year after Liberace’s death from AIDS-related complications, dueling television films aired. Campfests, they reminded the people of that era of their lousy gaydar — that mainstream society had allowed a lifelong bachelor who rocked flowing robes and heavy rings on each finger to become the world’s highest paid entertainer. Steven Soderbergh’s new film — and possibly his last — isn’t quite as crass. Like some of the director’s recent work, it’s detached and slyly intelligent, even as it subscribes to a tried-and-true genre structure.

In this case, it finds him making his twist on a bad relationship movie. Matt Damon plays Thorson, a strapping animal trainer with a Farah Fawcett flip ‘do who meets Liberace (Michael Douglas) when he’s 18. (Damon, incidentally, is 42.) The two wind up together for a decade, some of it warm and magical, much of it unpleasant and nightmarish. Liberace grants him access to his world of tacky excess, but it won’t be long until the fiftysomething sugar daddy, already obsessed with his own decaying looks, starts eyeing newer models.

Richard LaGravenese’s script deserves a lot of credit for not shying away from gay content, which is one reason this is playing on HBO, not in the nation’s multiplexes. But it follows the expected trajectory: The polite, vaguely stupid Thorson eventually succumbs to “Boogie Nights”-style coke tirades. But Soderbergh’s cold and bemused tone neutralizes the insanity. Gaudy jewelry, hirsute men and Roman columns become matter-of-fact, just part of Thorson’s day-to-day. He also brings out some of the story’s weirder elements. The craziest tidbit is that Liberace convinced Thorson to undergo plastic surgery to look more like him. Soderbergh’s characters regularly delude themselves, but here they do it through plastic surgery, even if the process makes them look like freaky gargoyles. (Damon’s fake nose is creepy, but it’s got nothing on the squinty look frozen on Rob Lowe’s predatory plastic surgeon’s face.)

Predictably, Douglas walks off with the movie. It’s not just an impersonation, but a performance that finds notes of vulnerability (and monstrousness) buried under pounds of affectation and furs. But don’t discount Damon. The real Thorson may have been an idiot — he currently sits in jail for credit card fraud — but as portrayed by Damon, he’s thick without being an idiot, as though he was aware he was making bad decisions but not smart enough to think of a way out that didn’t involve drugs and tantrums.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.