Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra: Michael Douglas IS Liberace

Matt Damon co-stars as the primping pianist's lover in a funny, poignant, surprisingly warm biopic soon to air on HBO

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Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young Angeleno who trains dogs for movies, is already a budding master of the gay gaze. At an L.A. bar in 1977, he eye-locks meaningfully with a handsome stranger, Bob Black (Scott Bakula). In a trice, Bob has whisked Scott off to Las Vegas for an evening to see the ultimate casino headliner, Liberace (Michael Douglas). Sitting in the huge auditorium, surrounded by enraptured members of the Blue Hair Society, Scott watches intently as “Lee” flashes his welded-dimple grin and chirps to the crowd, “I love to give people a good time!” — extending the word love for more trilling notes than a Chopin sonata. Before the evening’s over, Scott’s gay gaze, dewy and adoring, will have met Lee’s: merry, appraising, practiced and hungry.

Thorson would become Lee’s chauffeur, confidant and lover for five years, before putting a crimp in their relationship by suing the star for a $113 million in palimony. (The two settled out of court for less than $100,000.) Now their affair is replayed, with molto brio and some vivid emotional and erotic arpeggios, in Behind the Candelabra. Directed by Steven Soderbergh — in what he has declared is his final feature before retiring from films, at least for a while — and scripted by Richard LaGravenese from Thorson’s 1991 memoir, the movie receives its world premiere tonight, in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, before its debut next Sunday on HBO in the U.S. As with other HBO biopics about prominent figures from the pop-cultural past (Peter Sellers, Tippi Hedren, Phil Spector, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn), younger viewers may need a précis about the main characters. Who the heck was Liberace?

(READ: Corliss’s review of Steven Soderbergh’s previous “final film,” Side Effects)

Some would say he was just a piano player, noodling his way through the 1950s. But what Little Richard brought to early rock ‘n roll — an outsize stage personality, wild couture and supreme performance skills — Liberace did for light classical music. He parlayed a two-season syndicated TV program (1952-54) into a career that, for the next few decades, flourished ever more gaudily in Vegas showrooms, concert venues and Radio City Music Hall. Let the infidels in the tabloids mock Liberace for his mincing ways, his ostrich-feather frocks, his retinue of winsome piano prodigies or “protégés.” Virtually any publicity was good for business. As he telegrammed London’s Daily Mirror after a derisory column in 1956: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.”

Like Little Richard in his prime, Liberace was gay. His effeminacy was part of his act; as author Michael Herr wrote of the ’50s Lee, “Never before, at least knowingly, had a man ever had the big steel balls to show himself like that, and on television.” But he also didn’t officially acknowledge his sexual status. Indeed, he strenuously if unconvincingly denied it during the Thorson suit. Nor did any other major gay performer come out in that period, when homosexual acts not only were considered a perversion, but in many states were illegal. Officially outing himself, Lee must have thought, would alienate one of his core constituencies: middle-age and elderly women. His other demographic, of gay males, was already in on the joke. So this “secret” gay stayed in the closet — surely the world’s most outlandishly outfitted closet — until his death in 1987, of complications from AIDS.

(READ: A 1956 story on Liberace by subscribing to TIME)

From the start of the Soderbergh film, Lee wants to give Scott a good time. The rare star who simply and vigorously adores his celebrity, he serves as tour guide around his kitsch museum of a Vegas mansion, noting, “I personally support the Australian rhinestone business.” Soon, Scott is sporting a bejeweled monokini and making out with Lee in a hot tub. They have good times and great sex; the younger man is dazzled and flattered, the older man in love, telling Scott, “I want to be your father, brother, lover and best friend.” Not husband. Marriage equality could have answered Lee’s prayer, but his wish was at least 35 years premature. (Gay marriage is still not allowed in Nevada.)

Lee also wants Scott to be a younger Liberace, engaging the plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz (a wonderfully sleazy, impossibly juvenile-looking Rob Lowe), to perform the surgery. When Scott protests that he’s already young, a colleague warns him that, “In gay years, you’re Judy [Garland] in her Sid Luft obese period.” So he agrees. (Viewers should be prepared for explicit shots of face slashing.) Dr. Jack also prescribes medication, for Scott’s bedroom performance skills, that addict him to the showbiz biopic cliché of pill-popping and other drug abuse. And Lee sinks deeper into his dream of making love to a prettier version of himself, in fulfillment of Erich Fromm’s definition of marriage as “egotism à deux.”

(READ: Corliss on Liberace in a 1986 TIME story)

The movie might have been a cruel Francis Bacon-style portrait of a predatory male in his late years, but Soderbergh and LaGravenese see Behind the Candelabra more as a Disney World trip into ravishing exotica. If this is parody, it’s also consistently sweet-natured and open to poignance. Both stars are invested fully in characters whose geniality and need for each other they make viewers believe in. Though, at 42, Damon is more than twice the age Scott Thorson was at this time, he lives inside Scott’s innocence, or naïveté, and his eventual sense of imprisonment in the palatial Tiki Room of Lee’s desires.

The rampantly heterosexual Douglas might seem a stretch as Liberace, but from that first moment on the Vegas stage he nails the character, which quickly transcends mimicry for sympathetic evocation. Douglas reveals Lee as a prisoner too: of the American heartland values he could flout but not ignore, and of the fame that restricted the circle of friends who were available to become lovers. In the 1991 documentary Truth or Dare, Madonna noted the irony that her best friends were also her salaried employees; if they confronted her, as a close friend might, she always had the option of canceling their checks. As Scott’s employer-lover, Liberace held the power — until his underling, when pushed to the max, took him to the court of public ridicule.

 (READ: Corliss’s review of the Madonna doc Truth or Dare)

Soderbergh, who won Cannes’ Palme d’Or with his first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, 24 years ago, may be kidding when he says he’s out of movies. But if he keeps his word, he has capped a fertile film career with a high-quality sendoff. Looking Music Hall-size glamorous on the big screen, Behind the Candelabra is a TV movie only in its sage, nuanced and closeup concentration on the emotional tensions that bind two people, then break them apart. It happens that, this time, one of the two is a spectacular showman who could never stop performing. As Liberace exclaims from the stage, and from beyond the grave, “Too much of a good thing is — wonderful!”