May 19, 2013

HBO Liberace film goes 'Behind the Candelabra'

The chatter surrounding the project, at a time when gay rights are at the forefront of public debate, is unusually intense.

By MEREDITH BLAKE/McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 2)

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Director Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas appear on the set of “Behind the Candelabra,” which debuts May 26 on HBO. The film was more than 13 years in the making.

HBO/McClatchy Newspapers

IN SODERBERGH'S TELLING, Liberace is a bundle of contradictions -- at once funny, generous, controlling and narcissistic -- and Thorson the wide-eyed naif seduced by all the glamour.

All of which suggests the possibility that "Behind the Candelabra" was not too gay for Hollywood but, rather, the wrong kind of gay -- that is, not in keeping with the wholesome, unthreatening breed of same-sex relationships popular on TV these days, in shows such as "Modern Family."

"The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile," Soderbergh says. "But it'd be the same story no matter what the gender: older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power. Add showbiz and you've got a pretty complex melange of elements."

The film, rather than dwelling on the more eccentric aspects of Liberace and Thorson's romance, delights in the mundane ones, portraying Lee and his "Baby Boy" as a loving couple prone to fighting over the same banal subjects -- sex, careers, money -- as many a husband and wife.

The actors chose to focus on selling the small details that made their relationship not just believable but relatable, like the familiar way they cuddle on the couch while watching television. The contrast between Liberace's domestic routine and his extravagant lifestyle is a fertile source of humor, as when he and Thorson charge through their palatial Las Vegas penthouse, arguing about their barely existent social life.

"Want me to invite Charo over for brunch?" Liberace asks, as a swarm of tiny dogs yap underfoot.

"The absurdity of their relationship to me made me think, 'Well, all of our lives are absurd. We just think they matter because they matter so much to us,"' Damon says. "If you made a movie about all of our lives, it would probably seem as wonderful and tragic as this kind of story."

Heightening the comedic effect are performances from Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's manager and henchman Seymour Heller and especially Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon who gives Liberace a botched face-lift that renders him incapable of fully closing his eyelids ("This way you'll be able to see people's expressions when they see how fabulous you look!").

Given the film's high concentration of catty one-liners, rhinestone-studded G-strings and scenes set in foamy hot tubs, it's easy to imagine how in less capable hands "Candelabra" might have become "Showgirls" for a new generation.

The key to avoiding such a pratfall was playing it straight. Says Douglas, the savvy veteran: "You never wink at the audience."


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