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May 26, 2013

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

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Ignoring his foster parents' cautionary advice and the sneering, foreshadowing doom of one of Liberace's discarded houseboys, Scott moves to Vegas and becomes Lee's full-time employee and, as he discovers on his first night, sexual companion. (Further nightmares await when Scott discovers that Liberace wears a toupee.) Scott identifies as bisexual, which is not unlike Lee's public perpetuation of the myth of confirmed bachelorhood. As the years roll by, the two men settle into something like a marital arrangement with mutual affection — mostly courtesy of the pills Scott starts popping. Liberace then legally adopts Scott, which is less of a dad-son fetish and more of a notarized form of servitude.

I'm conflicted. There is some entertainment value in seeing this story splayed in all its glittery — and truthy — discomfort, even if it means the viewer spends two hours watching the manifestation of some of the very worst gay stereotypes. Rob Lowe arrives as Jack Startz, a garishly fey plastic surgeon who is summoned to give Lee a rejuvenating facelift and to remake Scott's face into a dimpled-chin, Liberace-esque ideal. Lowe's performance is slithery and over-the-top and it made me realize the thing "Behind the Candelabra" needs most: a gay sensibility and probably a gayer cast. Start with Nathan Lane or David Hyde Pierce; call Neil Patrick Harris; audition Lance Bass for one of the bit parts; ask Andrew Rannells if he's game. This list is long in 2013.

On a related, campy note, guess who is the only person in this movie who absolutely nails it? That would be Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace's guilt-tripping mother. In just two short scenes, her delicious presence tends to prove my point: If you're going to make another "Mommie Dearest," then go all out and make another "Mommie Dearest." Because what you see here, mainly, are some good straight male actors grasping at a trite and incorrect tone in the middle of a mediocre Lifetime movie.

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