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May 26, 2013

In HBO's 'Behind the Candelabra,' Liberace is a real drag

Steven Soderbergh's HBO movie, "Behind the Candelabra," is a dramatized account of the latter days and misdirected affections of one Władziu Valentino Liberace, and it's a sordid and at times beguiling glimpse into one of the world's blingiest closets and the closet-case who occupied it.

But it is mostly only sordid, and strangely devoid of the thematic layers that often accompanied the director's recent work. A year ago, Soderbergh delivered the surprisingly thoughtful "Magic Mike" to theaters, a film about a group of male strippers in Tampa. "Magic Mike" extracted achingly and subtly spot-on performances from Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum while it humanized a tacky and darkly troubled milieu, bathing its characters in harsh but beatific Floridian daylight.

The same cannot be said for "Behind the Candelabra" (airing Sunday night), which consistently holds its subject, Liberace, out at arm's length with tongs. The main message of the film is . . . disgust? Pity?

Perhaps vamping is the only real purpose here. In that regard, "Behind the Candelabra" is a costuming and cosmetic half-success, somewhere between freak show and amateur drag night. Michael Douglas stars as the famed pianist, dolled up and bedazzled, lisping his way through what turns out to be only a vague approximation of the older, 1970s/'80s-era Liberace — "Lee" to his inner circle — that most of us remember from variety shows. This is the faded celebrity in his semi-retiring Vegas years, surrounded by garish furnishings and yippy-yappy dogs that defecate on marble floors. Atmospherics are "Behind the Candelabra's" strongest suit, re-creating a gauzy and unctuous realm of expensive cheapness.

Though Lee is an enthusiastic participant in the back rooms of the sexual revolution, its broader freedoms have entirely passed him by; when Douglas' Liberace takes the stage, everyone except his geriatric fan club have caught on to the entirely unsurprising notion that Liberace is homosexual.

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