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Take a peek 'Behind the Candelabra'

Published May 24, 2013 7:31 am

HBO • Michael Douglas plays Liberace, Matt Damon his young lover in flamboyant film.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If the idea of Michael Douglas playing Liberace seems somewhat surprising to you, it was also somewhat surprising to Douglas.

Director Steven Soderbergh raised the possibility while the two were working on the 2000 movie "Traffic."

"Somewhere early in the shoot, Steven said, 'You know, have you ever thought about Liberace?' " Douglas said. "And I looked at him and I thought, 'Is this guy messing with me?' "

No. He was just being Steven Soderbergh.

"I don't know why that popped into my head, but I remember the day it did," Soderbergh said. "And [Douglas] immediately sort of launched into an impromptu impression of him that was excellent.

"And so I had it in the back of my mind and for years was thinking about it, but I couldn't figure out a way in. I didn't want to do a sort of traditional biopic and I didn't know what the angle was."

Until a friend suggested he read Scott Thorson's book, Behind the Candelabra.

"I said, 'Well, that's the best title I've ever heard,' " Soderbergh said. "And I read the book and I thought, 'OK, now I know how to get in.' "

The movie deals with the tumultuous six-year relationship between Liberace and Thorson (Matt Damon). We see the much older Liberace (57) seduce Thorson (18) — who claims to be bisexual — with an incredibly lavish lifestyle. Thorson is the latest in a string of men who pass through Liberace's life — a naive kid when he arrives, a jealous drug addict when he's expelled.

There's not a good guy and a bad guy here, they're both good and bad.

What with hair and makeup and prosthetics, Douglas ends up looking a lot like Liberace. But he's not just doing an impression.

"You're not going to ever be exactly like Liberace," he said, adding that he was "trying to find the balance that makes you comfortable, makes Steven secure and makes myself attractive to Matt."

Did Damon find Douglas as Liberace attractive?

"Very, very attractive," Damon said with a smile.

The actors and Soderbergh don't hold anything back in "Beyond the Candelabra." The movie is as flamboyantly gay as Liberace, but it is not sniggering or condescending. "I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of their characters or of the relationship," Soderbergh said.

What appealed to him about the book was that "the discussions that they're having are discussions that every couple has at a certain point. And what's unusual about it, obviously, is the environment in which these conversations are taking place. But we take the relationship seriously because my feeling [is] that it was a real relationship. And it was, up to that point, I think, the longest relationship Liberace had."

"It was a great love story," Douglas said. "These two guys really fell for each other. And so it's a story of a couple that fell for each other and a lot of wonderful, funny moments and joyful moments, but ultimately ended in tragedy."

But it's tough to get past the fact that Liberace was old enough to be Thorson's father. Maybe grandfather.

"I think [Thorson's] love was genuine," Damon said, "but I think it was complicated. He was somebody who was a foster kid and was looking for a family, and Lee gave that to him. And I think they had a profound love for each other and it ended badly, but there were a lot of wonderful moments and a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things that everybody goes through in long-term relationships."

Everybody who lives the kind of over-the-top life Liberace enjoyed, at least.

spierce@sltrib.com

"Behind the Candelabra"

Director Steven Soderbergh's TV movie about Liberace premieres Sunday, May 26, at 7 and 9 p.m. on HBO.