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It's a small, entertainment-industry insider sort of distinction, but it needs to be made: Behind the Candelabra isn't just a movie; it's a show.
In addition to being a biographical film about one of the world's most famous entertainers and his tumultuous relationship with a much-younger lover, it's also a kitschy and glamorous historical examination of the most lavish kind of show-business-fuelled excess. It is, in every sense, a performance piece.
Behind the Candelabra, which premi®res Sunday on HBO Canada, is a dizzying and completely captivating look inside the lives of legendary showman Liberace and his longtime paramour, Scott Thorson. It's a rather frank and occasionally uncomfortable exploration, and its success -- despite a rock-solid script by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and seamless direction by Steven Soderbergh -- is the direct result of skilful and selfless performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
The film opens in 1977, with wide-eyed teen Thorson working in Los Angeles as a trainer of animals for movies and TV shows. A product of social-services upbringing after being abandoned by his drug-addicted mother, Thorson is a young man in search of acceptance and affection.
He meets an older guy named Bobby (Scott Bakula) in a bar one night, and after their friendship intensifies, Bobby invites him to ride along on a trip to Las Vegas. While there, they attend a show by Liberace at the Hilton Hotel, and Thorson is blown away by what he sees.
After the show, Bobby takes his young charge backstage to meet Liberace. There's more than just mischief in the entertainer's smile, much to the chagrin of Liberace's onstage duet partner (and apparently headed-for-the-exit at-home companion). Thorson, taken by the moment, is completely unaware he's also just been given a foreshadowing of his own future.
Liberace invites Thorson to brunch the next day and, for all intents and purposes, the young visitor never leaves. Well, not for half a decade, anyway, when he's replaced by another young arrival in Liberace's inner circle.
What Douglas -- who brilliantly inhabits this over-the-top character without ever lapsing into parody -- and Damon accomplish over the next 90 minutes is quite remarkable; in a movie that's overflowing with costumes and decorations and jewelry and sparkly, rhinestone-encrusted everything, they keep viewers' attention riveted on a complex and quickly troubled relationship filled with -- at various stages -- genuine love, crippling jealousy, intense vanity and bitter betrayals.
It's also a relationship that was, by necessity, carried out in secret, as Liberace steadfastly maintained the public posture -- out of fear the truth would ruin his career -- of a straight man who simply hadn't ever met the right girl.
The pairing of Liberace and Thorson is shown, at its outset, as filled with genuine mutual affection (and plenty of frankly depicted man-on-man intimacy), but later on, as Thorson starts to dabble in drugs and Liberace becomes more possessive and demanding (including forceful requests that his lover submit to facial reconstruction surgeries to make him look more like a younger Liberace), things unravel in a manner that is quite mean-spirited and ugly.
As with any well-rendered onscreen relationship, the dissolution of this one is not easy to watch.
There are, however, also several campy moments and comedic asides, contributed mostly by a capable roster of co-stars led by Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's manager, Seymour Heller; Rob Lowe as the aging pianist's perma-stoned plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz; and Debbie Reynolds as his beloved mother, Frances Liberace. But overall, Behind the Candelabra is a serious, thoughtful adaptation of Thorson's like-titled book, which was published a year after Liberace's death in 1987.
There's plenty of glitz in this film to catch your eye and take your breath away, but after the credits roll, the only two things you'll remember are the stellar performances of Behind the Candelabra's fearless stars.
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