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Behind the Candelabra’ puts Liberace’s personal life in the spotlight

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The Details

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
Three and a half stars
May 26, 9 p.m., HBO

The Weekly recently named Liberace the greatest Las Vegas headliner of all time, but you won’t learn much about his Vegas legacy by watching the HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra, which focuses mostly on the musician’s personal life, specifically his five-year relationship with assistant/live-in lover Scott Thorson (it’s based on Thorson’s book of the same name). Not that the movie doesn’t give a sense of Liberace’s talent as a performer; director Steven Soderbergh shot in the LVH theater where Liberace performed during the late ’70s and early ’80s, and he effectively re-creates the spectacle that wowed audiences night after night. But the performances are background details for the story of Liberace’s profoundly dysfunctional relationship with Scott.

The fresh-faced Scott (Matt Damon) is mesmerized as soon as he takes in one of Liberace’s shows, and once he meets the man himself (Michael Douglas) backstage, he essentially doesn’t leave his side for the next five years. It’s a clearly unequal dynamic, with the naïve kid from a troubled background being seduced and spoiled by the multi-millionaire superstar. But while the movie has plenty of the familiar elements of the showbiz biopic (drugs, financial excess, shady hangers-on), it’s also very distinct to its particular time, place and characters. Working from a script by Richard LaGravenese, Soderbergh crafts an entertaining, affecting and ultimately tragic dual character study. While Liberace comes off as callous and manipulative, Soderbergh also shows how he’s in an impossible position, forced to vehemently deny his homosexuality in order to maintain his fanbase.

Damon is 20 years older than Thorson was during his relationship with Liberace, and that alters the perception of the character a bit, but he still does a remarkable job of showing Scott’s progression from wide-eyed innocent to strung-out cynic, without losing the charm that made Liberace take notice of him in the first place. Douglas has a tough balancing act in his performance as such a recognizable figure, and his mix of Liberace’s signature speaking voice along with his own gravelly tones doesn’t always work. Damon gets more freedom, and as such Scott comes off as a more well-rounded person, more open and vulnerable in the movie’s most emotional scenes.

Some of the supporting characters are a little cartoonish, and the story keeps going a little too long after it should have wrapped up. But Soderbergh knows how to capture a series of perfectly calibrated moments, offering up even the most clichéd interactions in a striking, inventive way. Behind the Candelabra may not be the best showcase of Liberace as an entertainer, but it’s a great showcase for him as a human being.

Other Las Vegas icons who deserve full-film treatment—and the folks who should play them

Colin Farrell as Andre Agassi in Backhanded Compliment

Paul Giamatti as Oscar Goodman in Martinis With the Mob

Shia LaBeouf as Brandon Flowers in Smile Like You Mean It

William H. Macy as Harry Reid in Why So Serious?

Penn and Teller as Siegfried and Roy in Use Your Illusion III

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