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May 26, 2013

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

(Continued)

It just gets sadder and more depraved for Lee and Scott. The older man becomes clingy and controlling; the younger man suffocates. Lee suggests an open relationship, but neither man approves of the other's interpretation of extramarital activities. When Lee compares their lives to an old sitcom, Scott protests: "Why am I the Lucy?"

"Because I'm the bandleader with the nightclub act," Liberace hisses. By now Douglas' performance has lapsed into a rhinestone-covered Gordon Gekko. Damon, meanwhile, gets better as he goes — mainly because our sympathies are squarely in Scott's corner. Scott becomes a cokehead, Lee kicks him out; those of you who read the gossip pages in the 1980s know the rest of it. There are lawsuits and accusations and payoffs.

Then Lee dies — of heart failure, his pitbull attorney (Dan Aykroyd) insists to the press, until the Riverside County coroner feels duty-bound to extract tissue from Liberace's embalmed body in order to prove, once and for all, that Liberace was . . . well, what everyone already assumed he was, and that he died of AIDS-related pneumonia. And that's where we leave it, with Scott sitting at Lee's funeral, imagining the beloved, delusional virtuoso floating away on glittery cape-wings.

At a news conference earlier this year for "Behind the Candelabra," Soderbergh and company expressed their gratitude to HBO for picking up the film when major studios balked at funding it, reportedly because the gay content was too much to handle. I'm not entirely convinced that "Behind the Candelabra" didn't make it to theaters for that reason alone. I think it's because the story as told is just too depressing, too empty and, most of all, too dead and gone.

"Behind the Candelabra" (two hours) airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO, with encores.

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