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HBO’s TV Movie about Liberace Dazzles Like a Sequined Suit — with Two Shining Stars
May 23, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 3 comments

More than just camp, and anything but dismissive, HBO’s new Behind the Candelabra telemovie takes Liberace seriously — and asks us to do the same…

Young viewers with no memories of the flamboyant pianist may be puzzled by the show-biz reign of Liberace, who at one point was the highest-paid entertainer in Vegas, and by the significance of his personal backstage story. So what if he wore outrageously flashy costumes on stage? So what if he had a younger boyfriend? What’s the big deal?

Well, the big deal that, in the 1950s and 1960s, Liberace blazed a trail of “embrace the excess” sensibility that, in Vegas and beyond, everyone from Elvis Presley to Elton John eventually emulated. And while presenting an on-stage persona that signaled a playful gay persona at almost every turn, Liberace kept his private life private, never came out as homosexual, and even sued a British newspaper, successfully, for calling him gay.

Behind the Candelabra, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, focuses largely on one specific period in Liberace’s life, when he had a relationship with a much younger man, Scott Thorson (above right, with Liberace), eventually making room for him in his act as well as his home. Steven Soderbergh directs the telemovie, and casts, as the two leads, movie stars with whom he’s worked in the past. Matt Damon, of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 movies and Contagion, plays Scott, and Michael Douglas, of Traffic, plays Liberace.

That casting could raise eyebrows, since both Damon and Douglas have movie careers dominated by rugged, even macho, tough-guy roles. But the actors take their parts, and this story, very, very seriously, while still having fun with scenes that allow for it. It’s a tricky dance, but they both pull it off. And not just barely — but confidently and impressively.

Before you see Behind the Candelabra, I recommend you do one piece of painless homework, to watch Liberace in his prime, and in a very knowing showcase. In 1969, Liberace appeared as a guest star on CBS’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour — not only playing the piano, but making fun of his image, his ornate costumes, even the candelabra atop his grand piano.

It’s a sequence that, at one point, marks one of the first appearances by Comedy Hour writer Bob Einstein as the motorcycle cop known as Officer Judy. When Liberace launches into a blistering version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Einstein drives on stage on his police motorcycle, siren blaring, and walks over to Liberace with his traffic-citation ticket book out.

“You know how fast you were playing?” he asks Liberace disapprovingly.

Here’s the complete set of sequences, showing both Liberace and Comedy Hour in fine form:

Now back to Behind the Candelabra.

The script by Richard LaGravanese (who wrote the screenplays for The Horse Whisperer and The Fisher King) starts out with Damon as Scott, establishing his character as a wide-eyed innocent before sending him off to witness his first Liberace concert show. Soderbergh uses a long tracking shot so that we enter the Las Vegas Hilton along with Scott, and, like Scott, get hit with the Liberace musical and visual glitz in full force. When we first see Michael Douglas as Liberace, we’re scrutinizing an actor’s choices and performance. But even before that first number is over, we’ve accepted the characterization, and we’re enjoying Liberace.

For a full review of Behind the Candelabra, and a few audio excerpts, catch my review today (Thursday) on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, or read and hear it on the Fresh Air website.

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I can remember watching Liberace's weekly TV show in black and white in the 1950s with my grandmother, who adored him. His candelabra no doubt cost more than the set.
May 28, 2013   |  Reply
The youngsters on this site weren't around to witness the showbiz phenomenon that was Liberace. Flamboyant is putting it mildly, but he was adored & accepted by blue haired grannies and macho men alike. Everyone seemed to love him; he also exuded a niceness that you don't see in today's so-called stars. I'm happy that Douglas & Damon attached themselves to this story as it's a story that should be told. One of my favorite Honeymooners' lines is when Alice is arguing with Ralph for a tv and screams at him, "I don't want to sit around & look at these four walls all day -- I want to see Liberace!" That's how big he was, and he remained so until his death. Good for Sonderbergh, Douglas and Damon (and HBO) for seeing this project through. The movie studios were really missing the point by not pursing this film; do they really not get what a huge star he was, and how diverse his audience was? Glad this is finally seeing the light of day.
May 24, 2013   |  Reply
Liberace pretty much came about with the advent of television.He was everywhere.Wiki says he was even involved in Soundies in the 1940s,which were music videos forty years before MTV played in a special jukebox.He was Lawrence Welk,Bocelli,and Yanni all rolled into one.Throw in some science and little self-help awareness and he could rule PBS today.A great Liberace spot was on the Muppet Show(available on youtube).
May 23, 2013   |  Reply
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