High above midtown Manhattan, on a February day so clear you can see New Jersey and Central Park from the same window, an adorable couple in a hotel room are smiling at old pictures of themselves together, giggling and whispering in-jokes as couples do. It’s all very charming and sweet — and maybe even a little bit obnoxious, in a somebody-stop-this-Zales-ad kind of way. ”Aww, remember the dog?” ”Oh, wow, your robe!” ”Where’s the one of us next to, you know, the thing?”
The pair in question happen to be Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, both of whom are men, movie stars, and, not incidentally, partners in very happy and very heterosexual marriages. (Damon and his wife, Luciana, tied the knot in 2005; Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, in 2000.) But never mind. Right now they just sound like any significant others leafing through a photo album — which makes perfect sense when you know that those pictures are actually publicity stills of their onscreen love affair in Behind the Candelabra, director Steven Soderbergh’s HBO film about the Swarovski-studded romance between closeted showbiz icon Liberace (Douglas) and his 39-years-younger lover, Scott Thorson (Damon).
Based on Thorson’s 1988 memoir of the same name, Candelabra begins in 1977, when Liberace (or ”Lee,” as his friends called him) is reigning in Vegas as the world’s favorite pianist-comedian-showman. After a chance encounter, he seduces Thorson, a naive 18-year-old foster kid, into his more-is-more world of private jets and be-thonged houseboys. The story ends in 1987, the year Liberace dies of AIDS, finally confirming the rumors of his secret life and leaving Thorson — whom he’d dumped five years earlier — with practically nothing but a drug addiction and a surgically altered face remodeled in Lee’s own image.
In between, there’s so much catfighting, jewelry bingeing, and Caligulan excess that Soderbergh might as well have called it sex, lies, and marble hot tubs. ”Liberace was just a larger-than-life personality, and I wanted to make sure that came across,” explains the director, who says his movie was dismissed by every major studio as ”too gay” before HBO eventually snapped it up. ”None of us could understand [the rejection]. It just seemed baffling to me. We had Michael and Matt and a great script by Richard LaGravenese, and the budget was $23 [million]… But we found the home that we were supposed to find.” (HBO and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY are both owned by Time Warner.)
The movie (which premieres May 26) also marks Douglas’ return to acting after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010. He’s now in good health and seems as energetic as a man half his 68 years when he starts talking about his raunchy and touching professional fling with the 42-year-old Damon — one that began, like so many great relationships, with a little innocent flirtation…