In “Behind the Candelabra,” Michael Douglas gives us one for the ages. His portrayal of the famously flamboyant pianist Liberace could easily have gone over the top — over the candelabra. It could have been the acting equivalent of “palatial kitsch,” the phrase Liberace uses in the HBO movie to describe his own extravagant gold-plated tastes. Given Liberace’s penchant for outlandishness, Douglas’s performance could have been a hammy, offensive mess.
Instead, Douglas brings an enormous amount of commitment, dignity, and dimension to “Behind the Candelabra,” creating a complicated man who is loving but narcissistic, exceedingly generous but controlling and predatory, painfully insecure but as loud and brassy as a Las Vegas marquee. It’s a seamless turn, one of the best of Douglas’s career, as he thoroughly merges with the role. You can hear the real Liberace in Douglas’s voice, the nasal and strangely enthusiastic cooing, the campiness hiding out in the open. But Douglas doesn’t veer into mimicry, either, as he approximates Liberace’s florid speaking patterns. He pitches his interpretation at precisely the right level.