NEW YORK – The idea of Michael Douglas playing Liberace might seem nearly as outrageous as Liberace himself.
Liberace, Mr. Showmanship, was the excess-to-the-max pianist-personality whose onstage and offstage extravagance were legendary and who wowed audiences in Las Vegas and worldwide to become the best-paid entertainer on the planet during his heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s.
He was the forerunner of flashy, gender-bender entertainers like Elton John, David Bowie, Madonna and Lady Gaga even as he kept a tight lid on his gay private life, which he feared could have ended his career had it come out. (His fans never seemed to get wise.)
By contrast, Michael Douglas is a 68-year-old movie star known for he-man performances and morally ambiguous roles. And he was no piano player.
But Douglas now dazzles as Liberace in the new HBO film “Behind the Candelabra,” including lavish musical numbers in which he tinkles the ivories and flourishes his jewel-and-ermine finery. The film (executive-produced by showbiz veteran Jerry Weintraub, a Liberace friend) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.
Douglas’ co-star is Matt Damon, who, in a casting choice almost as counterintuitive, plays Scott Thorson, a dreamy, strapping teen who in 1977 met Liberace in his Vegas dressing room and almost instantly became his personal assistant, live-in companion and top-secret lover.
“Candelabra” also features Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser, Debbie Reynolds and a hilarious turn by Rob Lowe as Liberace’s on-call plastic surgeon.
It was the film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, who brought together the two lead actors, helped shape their splendid performances and masterminded this portrait of a loving but bizarre and tempestuous affair.
This showbiz saga may be over the top, but there’s plenty of depth and it dives deep.
“We played the script and tried not to wink at the audience,” said Douglas. “It’s a great love story. I watch it and I forget about Matt and myself. Then, pretty soon, I practically forget it’s two guys: The conversations and arguments sound like any ol’ couple.”
Adds Damon in a separate interview: “The question for us was how do we make this look like a marriage that we recognize. Most of our scenes we could relate to because we’re both in long-term marriages. It was a male-female story with two guys.”
Douglas nails Liberace’s velvety, nasal voice and almost-ever-present pearly smile.
“One of the things I enjoyed about this part was I got to smile,” he said. “I don’t smile a lot in my pictures. I’m always so … grim.”
Still, in “Candelabra,” there isn’t always lots to smile about.
Thorson, a child of foster care, falls sway to Liberace’s charm and support, but it comes with a price. He is subjected to plastic surgery to mold him into a young Liberace (one of the remarkable makeup transformations Damon undergoes). He also becomes hooked on drugs in his mission to stay slim for Liberace, and, after a few years, his addiction and Liberace’s philandering bring a cruel end to the relationship.
Douglas, too, sports a variety of looks. Liberace is seen before and after his own plastic-surgery, and, in a final scene, gravely sick from an AIDS-related illness from which he died in 1987 at age 67.