It's a role I never would've expected him to play, either — at least not the Douglas who defined the American Man of the 1980s and early 1990s: the triumphant philanderer of Fatal Attraction, the greedy banker of Wall Street, the onscreen sex addict of Basic Instinct, the real-life sex addict. The dude definitely had his finger (among other things) on the pulse on the Zeitgeist.
Liberace, however, seemed like a relic from another time even when it was his time. The flamboyant pianist knocked out audiences with his onstage performances, only to be forced to play a different kind of performance off: that of a heterosexual. Liberace lived in a less forgiving time, when a man loved a woman and only a woman; gay men — especially those in the public eye — were supposed to stay in the closet. (He died from AIDS complications in 1987.)
It's reacting to that unwinnable situation that drives Candelabra beyond mere biopic. Made for HBO by wunderkind director Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike) — his last film, if his retirement is to be believed (and I hope it's not) — the movie shows how Liberace quietly wowed, wooed, seduced and flat-out manipulated his lovers. Candelabra casts its voyeuristic eye on his latest conquest, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, Elysium), an animal trainer turned live-in lover once Liberace laid eyes on him.
Shed of vanity (as his sagging belly attests), Douglas disappears into the part, giving it his all. His pawing of and pecking at Damon is given as much gusto as when Douglas famously planted his face upon Sharon Stone's genitalia in the aforementioned Basic Instinct. I'm not sure that's something the actor would have done that in his box-office prime; the point is that he has done it now and the acting job is marvelous.
That's not to say Damon isn't his equal, but while he's just as willing to pretend being on the other team, he fails to vanish as his partner. Rob Lowe makes a hilarious cameo as the plastic surgeon who, at Liberace's instruction, reshapes Thorson's face to resemble Liberace's, although Lowe takes his character to where Douglas admirably never does: cartoon land. —Rod Lott
Hey! Read This:
• Magic Mike Blu-ray review