No one wants a Liberace biopic to be subtle. You want the director to don a puffy-sleeved man-blouse and spell out the drama in rhinestones. You want the camera to linger on the peacock-feathered pianos, the velveteen ”royal throne” toilets, and, of course, that white fox-fur coat — the only coat in the world with its own chauffeur. And you’ll get all of that in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, which casts Michael Douglas as the Vegas legend and Matt Damon as his much younger lover Scott Thorson, whose memoir of their tumultuous five-year relationship inspired the film. But there’s less razzle-dazzle here than you’d expect from a portrait of a camp icon. Despite the stranger details of their courtship — say, the fact that Liberace had Thorson undergo plastic surgery to look more like him, or that he offered to adopt his young paramour — their love feels as banal as any married couple’s, right up until the end, when Thorson sues Liberace for palimony. The man deserved a sensational, Sunset Boulevard-style tribute; what he got plays more like a Lifetime movie.
To be clear, there’s still just enough camp gold to get the best lines bedazzled on a leotard. (My favorite: ”Honey, in gay years, you’re Judy during the Sid Luft obese period.”) Also, casting Rob Lowe as Liberace’s drug-pushing, alien-faced plastic surgeon is a genius move that allows the actor to send up his pretty-boy image. But Douglas’ performance is surprisingly restrained, especially given that he’s playing a man who lived in fear every day that his double life would be exposed. The more secretive parts of Liberace’s world, like his obsession with sex clubs and porn, come across as quirky rather than dark. And Damon, who captures Thorson’s damaged-child side well, makes him a little too sympathetic. (After all, this is a guy who’s now in jail for burglary.)
It’s interesting that Soderbergh couldn’t get Candelabra made as a feature film; he says it’s because studios feared it was ”too gay.” Liberace’s fans were actually mostly straight women, the older, blue-haired types. And for better or worse, that seems like the target audience for this movie, a glossy story of love gone wrong and then (slightly) redeemed at the end, without a whole lot of deep pathos in between. Those ladies might’ve been comforted by Liberace’s final words in the movie: ”Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” he says. That’s true — but just a little bit more of a bad thing might’ve been better. B-