HBO’s Liberace: Never Have So Many Sequins Been So Boring

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are all sparkle and sex in Behind the Candelabra, but that can't save the movie.

As one of the butchest actors around, Michael Douglas hardly seems the logical choice to play Liberace. Likewise for Matt Damon as Liberace’s lover, Scott Thorson.

Yet they both pull it off, in sequins, which is reason alone to watch Behind the Candelabra. The HBO flick debuted Sunday.

Unfortunately, it’s about the only reason. Thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s plodding direction and an uneven script, Candelabra projects the incandescence of an underground tunnel. Yes, it’s that boring.

Granted, it takes real skill to make Liberace boring. A world-famous Las Vegas pianist/showman for 40 years, he lived a life of consummate excess. No appetite was unsated, from his outrageous stage wardrobe to his unbridled lust for much younger men. Think Madonna, the Early Years.

Despite protestations to the contrary, Candalabra, at its base, is all about sex. Thorson was a teenager when he moved in with Liberace, then almost 60, in 1977. Five years later, when the maestro traded him in for a younger model, he filed a $113 million palimony suit. He won a small settlement in ’87, the same year Liberace died of AIDS.

Candalabra’s sex scenes include some of the movie’s best lines. In one post-coital shot, with Liberace and Thorson still panting, Liberace says: “We’ll go shopping tomorrow. After cooking and sex, I think shopping’s a reason to get up every day.”

In the same scene, Thorson asks his Sugar Daddy: “How do you stay so hard? That was the fourth time since lunch!” To which Liberace responds, “I’ve had implants.”

The sad irony is that Wladziu Valentino Liberace—”Lee” to his friends—fought to the very end to present a heterosexual public persona. (As if.) He claimed it was for the sake of his audience, comprised mostly of older straight females.

Douglas, in his comeback role after battling Stage IV throat cancer, hits the jackpot with Liberace. In the actor’s first portrayal of a real figure, he nails Liberace’s adenoidal voice, slow cadence, even his walk. Also, he kisses Damon like he means it. More than once.

Damon, in his seventh film for Soderbergh, kisses him back. He also parades around in a sparkly g-string, no small feat for the 42-year-old star of the Bourne action movies. What would Jason do?

Though Damon is not visually believable as the teenage Thorson, his portrayal of the young man’s incredible naivete is totally convincing.

A few years into their relationship, Thorson barely squawks when Liberace has a plastic surgeon remake Thorson’s face in his image. Rob Lowe, almost unrecognizable as Dr. Startz, plays him like a stoned Hollywood pimp.

Hysterical stuff.

Equally funny, albeit not meant to be, are Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s sleezoid manager, Seymour, and the incomparable Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s doting mother, Frances.

If you’re looking for pure camp on a holiday weekend, by all means, light on Candelabra. It’s as campy as a John Waters musical. If you’re expecting anything more, however, you’ll be disappointed.

Then again, Liberace, the ultimate entertainer, would have said that was enough.