HBO takes on Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra”

After Wilson and I cleaned the dinner dishes and put the kids to bed last night, we made a bee line for the couch. Many of our shows are done so we’re trying to get through our DVR recordings.  Wilson was ready to start the last season of “Justified“– which we missed– but I had other plans.

You can imagine how psyched he was to settle down to HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” about the flamboyant entertainer Liberace’s 1970’s affair with a man nearly 40 years his junior.

Claudette Barius/HBO

Claudette Barius/HBO

But after we finished the two-hour flick, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, we agreed it was well done and enjoyable. Direction by the Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh gives it Hollywood street cred and airing on HBO allows for the creative freedom and heavy content necessary to tell the story in a realistic way.

The film is based on a book by Scott Thorson, who was 17 and living in a foster home when Liberace asked him to move into his palatial Las Vegas estate in the late 70’s.

The acting is terrific, and the sets and costumes are fun eye candy. For those of you who may not remember Liberace, he was a talented pianist and campy singer who took his kitschy act around the world and made millions. He basically invented Las Vegas cheese as we know it today. His trademark look included heavy gold jewelry, enormous fur coats and jewel-encrusted pianos, each adorned with ornate candelabrum.



Always a fan of excess, his Las Vegas mansion had 17 pianos, a casino, a quarry’s worth of marble and a pool. On his bedroom ceiling was a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel with his own face painted among the cherubs. With his bad toupees and pulled face, he looked like a combination of fat Elvis and Sigfried and Roy, only instead of lions, he’s surrounded by toy poodles whom he talks to in a baby voice.

Douglas does a fine job of creating the character but not a caricature.  He plays the effeminate Liberace as a deeply sensitive, mentally warped man but despite his loony behavior, you sympathize with him. Damon loses himself in Thorson, a shy, awkward boy, completely enamored of the decadent showbiz life, who eventually morphs into a drug-addicted, paranoid flunkee.

Although these are two actors known for commanding, macho roles, their relationship is believable and compelling.

Over the course of their 6-year relationship, Liberace showered the hunky Thorson with gifts and attention.  It’s a captivating story because of the twisted relationship between the men. Liberace wanted to be the boy’s lover and father figure, which plays out in several bizarre acts.  The most disturbing may be when Liberace has a drugged up, face-lifted plastic surgeon– played hilariously by Rob Lowe– do work on Thorson’s handsome face, to make him look like Liberace when he was young.

It’s painful to see adorable Matt Damon prissied up like this.



In the end, both were extremely needy, vulnerable people who seemed to really love each other.  Liberace’s ultimate betrayal plays out like any modern celebrity romance. The difference is, it wasn’t splashed all over TMZ.  It’s fascinating to realize how easy it was for a big celebrity– especially one as ostentatious as Liberace–  to hide his personal life for so long.

I recommend you see “Behind the Candelabra, ” and let me know what you think in the comments.  I’m not the only fan:  a total of 3.5 million viewers tuned in when it premiered Sunday night, HBO’s highest numbers for a made-for-tv movie in almost 10 years.

One response to “HBO takes on Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra”

  1. What about the fantastic job done by Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Not too many people would have recognized her.