Review: 'Behind the Candelabra' and 'Liberace: The Ultimate Entertainer'

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star as Liberace and Scott Thorson
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and Scott Thorson

With HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, a strange but not wholly sad portrait of Liberace emerges revealing the legendarily flamboyant pianist who died from AIDS-related complications in 1987, and the culture that closeted him. Yet, the story doesn’t stop with director Stephen Soderbergh’s down-and-dirty film starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, as the DVD release of Liberace: The Ultimate Entertainer attests.

Liberace lived life to the fullest, for better and often for worse. “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” says Michael Douglas’ “Liberace” in a daydream sequence during the funereal finale of Behind the Candelabra.

The real "Lee" Liberace could have remained a classical pianist, a child prodigy who debuted at age 11 as a concert soloist with symphony orchestra performances soon following. Instead, he chose show business: the clubs of New York City, television and film in Hollywood, and most particularly, the stages of Las Vegas, where he became as noted for his rings, furs and kitschy home furnishings as he was his musicianship. That’s how he wanted it.

Director Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese land squarely in Liberace’s late-70s Vegas. They find a glittering world that thrilled Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young man who grew up in foster homes and aspired to be a veterinarian. This lonely soul was the perfect mate for Liberace; neither knew who their real friends were or who they could trust.

Douglas and Damon are exquisite and daring in their portrayals of Liberace and Thorson, a campy old braggart and a needy kid who become as much of a father-son team (Liberace did say he would adopt him) as they were a sexualized couple. After Liberace turns Thorson into a lean, plastic-surgery replica of his younger self (with help from a doctor, outrageously played by Rob Lowe), their intimate relationship becomes awash in cocaine (mostly Thorson) and anonymous trips to sex shops and glory holes (mostly Liberace), until neither man can take it anymore. When Liberace moves on to his next conquest, both the pianist and Thorson are negatively affected. Thorson loses the keys to the kingdom and the continuous flow of jewels and automobiles his lover lavished on him; Liberace lost a partner with genuine affection for him.

A palimony lawsuit ensued, and Liberace and Thorson remained estranged until the entertainer became terminally ill with complications from AIDS. In a touching final scene between them, they reconcile, and Liberace regrets that he let his “blonde Adonis” go.

With Liberace’s death in 1987, came a torrent of headlines and DNA tests that reported to an unaware public, that the closeted Liberace indeed died of complications from AIDS, an illness that was still a mystery to most at that time. Between Liberace’s passing and that of Rock Hudson, the public learned more about the deadly disease that killed them, and gained insight into the closet lifestyle of the stars.

Liberace: The Ultimate Entertainer
Liberace: The Ultimate Entertainer
For those who wish to think of Liberace without the seedy, sad drama and sexual subtext, Liberace: The Ultimate Entertainer is a great place to start. The two DVD set from Shout Factory shows Liberace at his 1960s and 70s prime, performing beloved songs for audiences in London and Las Vegas, hosting guests like Phyllis Diller and Minnie Pearl, and wearing furs that stretched the length of the stage during several televised spectaculars. There are bonus rarities throughout the DVD set, such as home movies where Lee and his violin-playing brother George jam together, as well as a segment, “Liberace's Wild Wardrobe”, that showcases his costumes throughout his career.

That’s the Liberace we know and love. This other one, the man from Behind the Candelabra, may take some getting used to.

Photo ©HBO
DVD Cover ©Shout Factory

Posted on Tuesday, May 28. 2013