Before you see any of Behind the Candelabra — when you just consider the concept of the TV movie and its casting — this new HBO Films production raises all sorts of questions: How much will be based on verifiable fact, and how much will be fictionalized? On an anything-goes premium-cable network such as HBO, how graphic will the sex scenes be?
And the most important questions involve the drama's two leading men, playing an ultra-flamboyant piano player and the wide-eyed young man who becomes his behind-the-scenes companion for five years. Michael Douglas? Matt Damon?
Let's dispense with the biggest curiosity factor — the casting — right away. Behind the Candelabra structures its story quite cleverly by starting with Damon as shaggy-haired Scott Thorson, a farm boy of sorts who works as a dog trainer for Hollywood films, lives with protective older foster parents, and is first shown, in 1977, shyly allowing himself to be approached at a bar by another man.
Damon's Scott is all aw-shucks innocence, and when a friend takes him to Las Vegas to see a Liberace show, it's like he's taking a trip to Oz. They walk into the Hilton showroom while the performance is in full swing, and so do we — hit immediately, and viscerally, by the excessive glitz of it all: the glass-topped gold grand piano, Liberace's silver-sequined suit and pompadoured hair, and of course his carefully rehearsed casual stage patter, with which he entertains the audience while playing piano, sometimes with only one hand. You start the scene watching Michael Douglas, but in seconds you're carried away, or at least dumbfounded, by Liberace.
When Scott's friend Bobby, played by Scott Bakula, ushers him backstage after the show to meet the star, young Scott is instantly taken in by the larger-than-life persona he encounters. And so are we — because Michael Douglas, who personified the male libido in Fatal Attraction, commits to the character of Liberace so completely and so convincingly.
From that point on, Behind the Candelabra is pretty much the arc of a showbiz love affair between a Vegas icon and an innocent who gets remade to embody that star's specific fantasies. It's like Elvis and Me, that TV movie about Elvis and Priscilla Presley — except that in this case, it's boy meets boy, boy gets boy, boy loses boy. The script is by Richard LaGravenese, who also wrote The Fisher King and The Horse Whisperer, and his approach is to underscore the similarities between gay and straight relationships, not the differences.
So yes, Damon and Douglas share a few love scenes, and sex scenes and bubble baths. But nothing in Behind the Candelabra feels gratuitous — and though the behind-the-scenes dialogue shouldn't be taken as gospel, the over-the-top settings and costumes and music are as authentic as possible. The music, in fact, was adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, whose contributions here were his last film work before he died.
Director Soderbergh, who worked with Douglas on Traffic and Damon on the Ocean's Eleven films and others, does Liberace's story justice onstage and off. As a bonus, he packs the movie with big names playing small roles: Debbie Reynolds as Liberace's mom, Dan Aykroyd as his manager, Rob Lowe as his plastic surgeon and Paul Reiser as a lawyer.
But it's the two central stars who really make Behind the Candelabra work. For Damon, it's a role that shows a different side emotionally. And for Douglas, it's about as showy a comeback role as anyone could imagine after a cancer diagnosis. And this is one Hollywood veteran who doesn't just pull it off — he owns it.