Wednesday, May 29, 2013 | 4:13 p.m.
The most stunning scene in “Behind the Candelabra” is telegraphed: Wearing a Speedo in the design of a black, studded, Siegfried & Roy-inspired codpiece, Matt Damon-as-Scott Thorson makes his way from Liberace’s pool to the master bathroom.
There, he finds Liberace, almost totally naked.
On his scalp.
Liberace was bald, and a bad form of bald, too. Absent his believable and bushy hairpiece, Michael Douglas looks like Dick Vitale, and it is not awesome, baby. It is a great effect, one of many, in the film that premiered on HBO on Sunday night.
Damon is convincing as Thorson, who wrote the book on which the movie’s screenplay was based. This may have been Thorson’s version of events, but he nonetheless appears highly unappealing as a gullible kid who quickly turned opportunist, allowing his face to be surgically reconfigured to reflect Liberace’s and lapsing into drug addiction and its accompanying paranoia and erratic behavior. Liberace’s great fault here is falling for a low-rent character like Thorson in the first place.
Damon plays that complex role triumphantly. In his dazzling turn as Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller, Dan Aykroyd seems to be summoning the mannerisms of his “Weekend Update” character from “Saturday Night Live.” But instead of, “Jane, you ignorant slut,” Aykroyd asks Liberace to hand the phone to Thorson during a debate about the pianist’s grueling schedule. Thorson is claiming Lee is overworked, and Aykroyd growls, “Put Scott on the phone. I need to ask him a question.” Then he says to Damon, “Will you please stay the (expletive) out of my business?”
It is a great moment, among many, in what is expected to be Steven Soderbergh’s final directorial effort. Rob Lowe is sufficiently unctuous as the plastic surgeon who pulls back Liberace’s face (too tight, as it turns out, as the patient’s eyes are stuck open) and remakes Thorson to resemble the entertainer. It’s Lowe’s creepiest performance since he played the drifter Alex in “Bad Influence.”
The film’s deficiency is a failure to capture the genuine spectacle of Liberace’s stage show. The scenes shot at the old Las Vegas Hilton showroom are fun to watch, and Phililp Fortenberry’s piano work is dazzling as expected.
But the scenes fall short of conveying the scope of those shows and Liberace’s notorious attention to detail. At one point, he warns his then-protégé Billy Leatherwood (played by Cheyenne Jackson) that Leatherwood “won’t be walking on my stage with ketchup on your jacket.” But there is no scene of Liberace constructing his show, sorting out how to deliver a particular production number or being painstakingly fitted for one of his stage costumes (which were cut in such a way to draw attention to his ring-encrusted hands) that reflected what set the showman apart from his peers.
That’s all quibble-talk, of course. Even somewhat minor roles proved memorable. Debbie Reynolds, playing Liberace’s mother, had just three significant scenes, but was unidentifiable and effective in her matronly gray wig and oversized glasses. Priceless is the scene where she wins a jackpot at the slot machine at Liberace’s house, which is devoid of coins, and tells her son she’ll take a personal check for her winnings. “But I van! I van!” she calls to her perplexed offspring.
The movie drew great ratings for HBO, with 2.4 million viewers watching Sunday, making it the most popular HBO original film premiere since “Something the Lord Made” in 2004 with 2.6 million viewers. More than 1 million viewers watched the second broadcast late Sunday. “Candelabra” also should be richly awarded by Emmy and Golden Globe voters but was reportedly too risky a proposition for major film studios for widespread release.
That seems an overly cautious sensibility. There was nothing excessively lurid about the romantic scenes between Damon and Douglas, if that was the hang up. Nothing that hasn’t already been investigated in “Brokeback Mountain,” at least.
The concern in Las Vegas, among Liberace’s more fervent devotees and those who lord over his famed collection of artifacts at The Liberace Museum, was that the film would reduce the great showman to a one-dimensional figure. When it was announced that Soderbergh’s long fascination with the Liberace story would be culled from Thorson’s book, the immediate and instinctive concern from many of his fans in Las Vegas was that the film would sensationalize the artist’s private life.
But just after watching Sunday’s premiere, Liberace Foundation Chairman of the Board Brian “Paco” Alvarez said, “The movie was delightful.”
Alvarez took note of Aykroyd’s depiction of the uber-focused Heller, whom Alvarez says is the “unsung hero” of Liberace’s career who attempted to shield the entertainer from such predators as Thorson.
What will the film mean to The Liberace Museum, which is scheduled to reopen at Neonopolis in early 2014? Alvarez says it will expand awareness of Liberace’s story to the degree that, hopefully, a younger generation of fans will want to explore what all the fuss was about in the pianist’s career. The man who was a trailblazing showman, and at the peak of his career the highest-paid entertainer in the world, has been largely forgotten.
His legacy has been carried by a more contemporary order of superstar, the comparisons to Lady Gaga are valid, and also by somewhat lackluster efforts by CeeLo Green to re-create the Liberace magic on the Strip.
The film is a great piece of work. It is a start. As a piece of entertainment, it meets some high standards, especially those set by the man behind the candelabra.