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Michael Douglas hits the right notes as Liberace

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.


And no, the subtext of this review isn't about how "brave" Douglas is for playing such a flashy gay man. These days, I hope, that kind of veiled insult has fallen by the wayside, that belief that acting effeminate on screen somehow automatically merits extra kudos — or even awards — because it's so offensive or career-risking. What Douglas does that's profound in "Behind the Candelabra," like what Philip Seymour Hoffman did in "Capote," is that he opens up one of entertainment's most famous spectacles, humanizes him, shows us who this man might have been. By the end of the movie, set just after his death from AIDS in 1987, you feel as though you've actually spent time in a room with "Lee," as Liberace was known to his friends.

And the rest of the film, which premieres Sunday night at 9? It matches Douglas's brilliance in every way.

Beautifully written (by Richard LaGravenese) and directed (by Steven Soderbergh), "Behind the Candelabra" doesn't quite fit into the biopic genre — simply because it is so good. Biopics generally graze famous lives, pulling out the best-known moments, dutifully reenacting them, and linking them together in a long flashback that plays like a page of gifs. Instead, LaGravanese, whose credits include "The Fisher King," gives us only one strong arc in the movie, built around Liberace's relationship with Scott Thorson, who is played by Matt Damon. But it's a revelatory arc, and in the 10 years that the two men knew each other, we see all of Liberace's best and worst traits come to the fore. We see in detail one full cycle of the way Liberace moved from fawning adoration to boredom to contempt, a cycle that he repeated with many younger men before Thorson.


The two meet in 1977 through a mutual friend (played by Scott Bakula), when Thorson is an innocent kid with blown-dry hair. Damon does a great job of showing how Thorson, who'd grown up with an unstable mother and in foster homes, is frightened by Liberace's extroversion and yet drawn to his paternal warmth. Liberace quickly seduces Thorson and installs him as his assistant, thus pushing his former protege out of the mansion. They establish a bond that is a blend of romantic love, father-son affection, brotherly playfulness, and prostitution. Wisely, Douglas makes Liberace's love of Thorson feel genuine in the moment, as they repeatedly connect over champagne in the hot tub; he doesn't telegraph to later in the story in order to make Liberace seem disingenuous.

Like "Boogie Nights," "Behind the Candelabra" doubles as a travelogue through some of the signature nightmares of the late 1970s and the 1980s. Liberace cringes at seeing himself on TV on "The Tonight Show" — "I look like my father in drag," he moans — and he turns to Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe) for some primitive plastic surgery. In one humorous moment, Thorson realizes that the post-face-lift Liberace is sleeping — though his eyes are open.


Soon, Liberace decides that Thorson, still young and attractive, needs to have face work, too, in order to look more like him. It's one of the creepier turns in their union of selves, alongside Thorson's gradual donning of Liberace-style finger bling. Thorson submits to surgery, with only one request, for a chin dimple. But it's the beginning of the end, when Startz, played by Lowe with an amusingly tight face, introduces Thorson to a prescription bottle he calls the "California diet." Before long cocaine is in the mix, as well as Liberace's passion for pornography and bathhouses.

The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, covers the highs and lows of the Liberace-Scott Thorson relationship.Claudette Barius/HBO/HBO

There are jokes here and there throughout the movie, all of them shrewdly underemphasized by Soderbergh. We see a number of shots of Damon's butt, and we can tell he's finally adapted to life with Liberace when one of those shots reveals a thong tan. An almost unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace's domineering mother, who treats her gambling wins with comic seriousness. In some stage-performance scenes, it's hard not to smile at the sight of women of a certain age swooning over a closeted man who is so overwhelmingly queeny. And many of the costumes are hysterical — Thorson's drum major outift, for example, and Liberace's sequined kaftans.


But "Behind the Candelabra" is primarily a drama, and the unraveling of the relationship between Liberace and Thorson is filled with sadness. Damon is top-notch as he takes us all the way through Thorson's disillusionment, from his happy, docile days to his resentment at having been spit out. The movie touches on the palimony lawsuit Thorson initiates against Liberace, but doesn't get caught up in it. The focus is on the two men and the exchange of power and identity between them. And it's on Douglas, most of all, who reveals the core of a hard-working, fast-living, self-involved, and humorous man. We can see him clearly, surrounded by chandeliers, marble floors, and mirrors, alone.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.