Liberace, Could That Really Be You?

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Admit it. Of all the celebrity couples you might have imagined together either romantically or sexually, Matt Damon and Michael Douglas never entered your mind as a twosome. For that matter, if you were casting a movie about Liberace, Douglas would not have been front and center on that list, either.

After seeing HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,”, which is airing on HBO, there’s good reason he shouldn’t have been. When Douglas’s Liberace sees himself on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show he recoils in horror and utters what might be the truest words spoken in the movie: “I look like my father! I look like my father in drag! I look like my father in ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.’ ‘’

And he does, only not Liberace’s father — Michael Douglas’s father. Even before he said that, Douglas’s performance kept striking me as Kirk Douglas auditioning for a drag show. Or impressionist Frank Gorshin as Kirk Douglas auditioning for a drag show because Douglas’s performance never gets beyond parody. It’s the problem of one outsized personality playing another; the strain is so great that Douglas never feels like he’s settling into anyone else’s skin, that he just keeps going over the top.

See if you agree:

Damon, on the other hand, is terrific as his lover, Scott Thorson, but let’s back up. In case you’re not in on the worst kept secret of the 20th century, Liberace was gay. And many of us growing up and watching his weekly show in the 1950s pretty much knew he was gay before we even knew what homosexuality was. It might have been the comments that my mother and her sisters made while watching the show – an expression that sounded like a cross between an “oy” and an “oh” that signified arched amusement when Liberace smiled or cocked his head at the camera. I wouldn’t be surprised, though I can’t swear, that the Yiddish pejorative for a gay man had been used.

Still, we all watched with fascination. He was one of those one-named wonders of ‘50s TV – Toscanini! Liberace! Lassie! Superman! Was it his flamboyance? His melodramatic piano playing? The candelabra? Whatever, he and his brother, George, were all part of the great ‘50s extended TV family.

He's still fun to watch:

Scott Thorson wasn’t telling us anything we didn’t know when he spilled the beans on his ex-lover in 1988’s  “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace.” Liberace had died of AIDS and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it wasn’t from a blood transfusion.

And Steven Soderbergh, the director, certainly isn’t telling us anything we don’t know, though some of the sex scenes between Douglas and Damon might be eye-popping (complete with poppers) for some.


Not that Soderbergh is trying to be salacious. He’s a smart, tasteful director who’s worked well with both Douglas and Damon before. He’s obviously not trying to titillate us with the story; the problem is that it’s never apparent what he is trying to do.

There are certain themes that are intriguing, such as the things we will do for celebrity, or to be associated with celebrity — not only Liberace, whose vanity knows no bounds in the film, but for Thorson, as well. He even submits to a facelift when Liberace wants him to look like his son. But this American version of idolatry is an oft-told story by now and “Behind the Candelabra” only adds a gay twist on the theme.

Liberace’s deep-rooted Catholicism is also fascinating considering how the Church feels about what was his unrestrained proclivity, but the religious angle isn’t developed except in showing why he believed that God sent a nun to save his life.

What we’re left with, then, is not very much. It’s obvious, from foreshadowing — even if you don’t know the story — that Liberace is going to leave Thorson for younger blood just as the he leaves the young man at the beginning of the film for Thorson.

It helps not at all that everyone in the film is supremely unlikable, though we’ll give Debbie Reynolds a pass as Mama Liberace. OK, Dan Aykroyd, too, as Liberace’s manager.  The rest are as uninteresting as they are unlikable. Compare “Behind the Candelabra” to “Sunset Boulevard” and the difference is that Billy Wilder makes his age-inappropriate lovers utterly fascinating. You don’t know what they’re going to do next.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in "Behind the Candelabra." (Claudette Barius/HBO)
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in "Behind the Candelabra." (Claudette Barius/HBO)

Here, it’s all too clear what everyone is going to do. For all the predictability, though, Damon is his usual, solid self. Whether he’s playing a sociopath in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or Liberace’s manipulated and manipulative lover, there’s something pleasantly amiable about him. And he knows what he’s doing. He’s never less than believable, gay or straight, nerd or killer.

There was something winningly affable about Liberace, too. The camera-ready smile, the pompadour, the way he caressed the piano whether it was Bach or boogie woogie. We liked Liberace, and Douglas and Soderbergh don’t get beyond parody in searching for his charisma. He deserved at least as much as David Mamet and Al Pacino gave Phil Spector recently in that under-appreciated HBO film.

We already knew what was behind the candelabra. Soderbergh and Douglas should have let us see what was inside the man.Here's a more positive spin on the movie.

This program aired on May 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.