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May 26, 2013

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

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As a measuring stick of social progress, "Behind the Candelabra" at times comes off like those films about the tribulations of black Americans in the Jim Crow era; you simply cannot get your mind around the construct of fear and secrecy that defined gay men. The Liberace we see is obsessed (to the point of litigation) with maintaining the fiction of his heterosexuality, insisting to his grave that he only ever pined for the figure skater Sonja Henie. For all his flamboyance, Liberace perceived open gayness as a humiliating career-killer (as many celebrities still do).

Yet it seems "Behind the Candelabra" has little interest in unpacking the ironies and self-loathing that haunted Liberace and those around him. With some subtle adjustments to Richard Lagravenese's screenplay, the movie could very well act as a metaphor for a story about the beginning of the end of gay discrimination. Instead, "Behind the Candelabra" is one long downward spiral, a gratuitous tale of a man who drowns in his own opulent acts of denial.

Lagravenese's efficient but weirdly two-dimensional screenplay is based on a tell-all book of the same name by Scott Thorson, who was Liberace's live-in lover and, nominally, his chauffeur and houseboy. Released a year after Liberace died in 1987, Thorson's "Behind the Candelabra" was greeted mainly as an act of salacious revenge penned in the wake of a bitter legal dispute. In hindsight, Thorson's book was a stab at truth — even if it was an opportunistic stab at truth.

So much time has gone by that the film version can mainly get by with reveling in the retro of it all, occupying the same chronological and psychic space as "Boogie Nights." In the movie, Matt Damon, who is 42, plays Thorson from the age of 18 to 29, a glaring fact of miscasting. (Douglas, at 68, is playing Liberace from age 56 to 67, and "stretch" isn't quite the right word for what the performance lacks.) The screenplay gives Damon a whole lot more to work with, in terms of both depth and deception, and, to his credit, Damon outperforms Douglas early on. The Scott Thorson shown here is a fair-haired naif in the presence of a cunning and fruity Dracula; no sooner does Scott go with a friend to Las Vegas to see Liberace's concert than he is in the palatial hot-tub getting the hard sell from Mr. Showmanship himself.

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