(AP) Douglas, Damon dramatize a steamy showbiz affair
By FRAZIER MOORE
AP Television Writer
The idea of Michael Douglas playing Liberace might seem nearly as outrageous as Liberace himself.
Liberace, forever hailed as Mr. Showmanship, was the excess-to-the-max pianist-personality whose onstage and offstage extravagance were legendary and who wowed audiences in Las Vegas and worldwide to become the best-paid entertainer on the planet during his heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s.
He was the forerunner of flashy, gender-bender entertainers like Elton John, David Bowie, Madonna and Lady Gaga even as he kept a tight lid on his gay private life, which he feared could have ended his career had it come out. (His fans never seemed to get wise.)
By contrast, Michael Douglas is a 68-year-old movie star known for he-man performances and morally ambiguous roles. And he was no piano player.
But Douglas now dazzles as Liberace in the new HBO film “Behind the Candelabra,” including lavish musical numbers in which he tinkles the ivories and flourishes his jewel-and-ermine finery. The film (executive-produced by showbiz veteran Jerry Weintraub, a Liberace friend) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT.
Douglas’ co-star is Matt Damon, who, in a casting choice almost as counterintuitive, plays Scott Thorson, a dreamy, strapping teen who in 1977 met Liberace in his Vegas dressing room and almost instantly became his personal assistant, live-in companion and top-secret lover.
It was the film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, who brought together the two lead actors, helped shape their splendid performances and masterminded this portrait of a loving but bizarre and tempestuous affair.
This showbiz saga may be over the top, but there’s plenty of depth and it dives deep.
Adds Damon in a separate interview: “The question for us was how do we make this look like a marriage that we recognize. Most of our scenes we could relate to because we’re both in long-term marriages. It was a male-female story with two guys.”
Well, maybe. But that doesn’t override the risk factor for Douglas and Damon as they tackled roles dramatically at odds with their images and past work.
Why did Damon say yes to man-to-man pillow talk and sequined thongs?
Douglas, too, had been in Soderbergh films, including the 2000 thriller “Traffic,” during whose production the director first proposed Douglas playing Liberace.
Why did he agree?
Douglas nails Liberace’s velvety, nasal voice and almost-ever-present pearly smile.
Still, in “Candelabra,” there isn’t always lots to smile about.
Thorson, a child of foster care, falls sway to Liberace’s charm and support, but it comes with a price. He is subjected to plastic surgery to mold him into a young Liberace (one of the remarkable makeup transformations Damon undergoes). He also becomes hooked on drugs in his mission to stay slim for Liberace, and, after a few years, his addiction and Liberace’s philandering bring a cruel end to the relationship, after which Thorson unsuccessfully sues for palimony.
Douglas, too, sports a variety of looks. Liberace is seen before and after his own plastic-surgery refresher, and, in a final scene, gravely sick from an AIDS-related illness from which he died in 1987 at age 67.
This death scene is particularly haunting for anyone who followed Douglas’ recent near-death experience. “Candelabra” is his comeback performance after a brutal six-month regimen of radiation and chemotherapy for stage 4 throat cancer in 2010.
When he stepped in front of the cameras after his own brush with mortality, he seems to have embraced Liberace as a positive life force and a fitting way to get back in the game.
But Liberace also had a dark side. This, Douglas also captures despite a refusal to acknowledge it.
And while he allowed that “Candelabra” viewers might see Liberace as tormented and self-destructive, among sunnier traits, “I didn’t see him that way. I didn’t see a dark side to him.
Playing Liberace “was so much fun!” he said. “You put on this mask and it allows you to do anything you want. I don’t get to do that very often. My movies are usually about stripping off the makeup, getting down to the skeleton.”
In “Candelabra,” Douglas certainly got to wear a lot of makeup, and subsequent projects should allow him to embody other colorful characters _ such as President Ronald Reagan in the film he was about to start, “Reykjavik.”
As he spoke, he had already wrapped a comedy called “Last Vegas.” Ahead is a Rob Reiner film with Diane Keaton, and a couple after that.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier