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Behind the Candelabra: My take on the movie starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

Warning: This Post Riddled with Spoilers 
Behind the Candelabra, the story of Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson, gets off to a bumpy campy start with their meeting in Liberace's Vegas dressing room. Liberace (Michael Douglas) has such a ridiculous leer on his face, he so obviously wants to devour Thorson(Damon) who just stands there looking goofy and gorgeous and uncomfortable that for a nano-second I cringed. I watched cautiously measuring my responses to seeing these two actors as I had never seen them before; but before long I was in it completely, laughing at the outlandishness of it all but swept up by these two men, these two people, and the wild and crazy story of their love and its predictable demise. It could have been a made for TV disaster but tethered by Soderbergh's clear-eyed direction and brutally honest, committed performances from both Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra escapes being a cheap celebrity tell all or juicy titillation; it's a compelling deconstruction of a love story that's bizarre for most of us (it's not your everyday relationship where your sex addict musical legend boyfriend asks you to have a face lift to look like him!)that somehow touches us all. 

Damon as Liberace's young lover is all fawning innocence at the beginning; the dopey look on his face, his mouth open in unformed response; a babe in the woods; hunky Matt Damon totally sells being swept off his feet by Douglas' cooing, lonely, Liberace. And like I said, 'committed'. I thought MLH was going to faint when Thorson (Damon), clad in a skimpy white rhinestone mankini, climbed up out of the pool and straddled Douglas on a chaise. As the two start making out, Douglas grabs Damon's butt in both his hands - it's an audacious and hilarious move. And you can certainly see what Liberace sees in Thorson to leer at; Damon must have been working out with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper's trainer to achieve those arms, that back; Damon looked hot. Technical term.

Embracing the role of Liberace, Douglas left his vanity in his trailer. When we see the legendary pianist without a wig for the first time, bald, mere wisps of hair poking out the sides, his paunch escaping from his bare, towel-wrapped torso, we're as speechless as Thorson. Is this really the superstar?  In the scenes where Liberace performs onstage, Douglas has to compete with a blindingly dazzling set but manages to steal the spotlight, like he was born to strutt his stuff, trailing an outlandish Swarovsky crystal-encrusted white fox cape behind him.  But it's the one to one moments that make this one of Douglas' finest performances; capturing the desperation of the older man in his eyes, finding his own softness and vulnerability in order to reveal Liberace's complex man in love. His performance could have been the cringe-worthy caricature I dreaded - but it wasn't. It was honest, illuminating, heart-wrenching and great fun to watch. 

Soderbergh details the couple's rise and fall with authenticity; the HBO Behind the Scenes vid I posted is actually pretty informative with specifics from the craftsmen and women on the amazing sets, hand-sewn costumes, wigs and first rate makeup. These spot-on elements keep us grounded in time and place - a time and place that demanded gay stars stay closeted - while the relationship unravels.

Soderbergh finishes his film with the unbelievably beautiful funeral scene. Thorson, sitting alone at the back of the Catholic church, watches as Liberace - spectacularly attired as ever - rises up like an angel to where his piano waits on a platform high in the air. Bathed in Soderbergh's soft gold light*, Thorson watches, his eyes warm and filled with love, while Liberace sings his signature version of The Impossible Dream. I was seriously done in. Shoulders shaking, the whole shebang. 

Kudos to both Douglas and Damon for embracing the challenge - and each other - with gusto. And to Soderbergh. What a spectacular retirement party! The truth is that while the director is famously retiring; for the time being it's just from feature work - and who knows how long that will last? In the meantime cable tv is more than thrilled to have him. Soderbergh's next project will be The Knick starring Clive Owens for Cinemax.

See the real Liberace sing The Impossible Dream. The vocal starts at about 1:15 in. 

*Russell (the filmmaker son) clued me in that Soderbergh used a fog filter which creates a soft glow and flare to set a warm romantic tone.