It seems cliché to call Michael Douglas and Matt Damon brave for playing Liberace and his one-time lover, Scott Thorson, in "Behind the Candelabra," airing at 9 tonight on HBO.
Cliché, and perhaps homophobic, given the implication that playing gay represents a huge risk for straight actors. Playing a gay man isn't brave. It's acting.
Taking roles as these particular gay men flashy, flawed, highly sexual and locked in codependency and revealing vulnerability while doing it, however, is brave.
Their characters, and the intimate, fascinating film they're in, will stick with viewers. Douglas might play a senator in some thriller five years down the road, but a tiny part of anyone who sees "Candelabra" will still envision him behind a gleaming piano.
Roles so indelible are risks for actors who want to glide easily among studio films. But Damon alternates studio films with indies. Douglas is the more traditional movie star, but at 68 and having survived throat cancer, said the heck with it.
Douglas displays an ease and command that match that of Liberace, the great and gracious entertainer who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. ("Candelabra" is based on Thorson's 1988 memoir.)
More impressive is how Douglas makes himself small in ways he never has before on screen. Behind the candelabra, Liberace is bald and sometimes looks ancient next to his young paramour. Director Steven Soderbergh even enhances Douglas' wrinkles in a close-up that makes Douglas look like the Crypt Keeper.
Yet Douglas mesmerizes rather than repulses. He could only do that in a film carefully and thoughtfully directed by someone the actors trust in this case, Soderbergh, who worked previously with Douglas ("Traffic") and Damon ("Contagion," the "Ocean's" films) and has said "Candelabra" will be his directing bow.
Without Soderbergh calibrating its camp, "Candelabra" and its full-length furs, gaudy gold jewelry and big emotions might have run into "Mommie Dearest" territory. And no actor is brave enough to go where Faye Dunaway went.
"Candelabra" starts with highly engaging camp, showing Liberace, stage lights hitting his rings and rhinestones, behind a piano and charming a 1977 Las Vegas crowd that includes Scott, a friend of a friend.
It becomes poignant soon after, when Scott, hot of bod but desperate for stability, moves into the home of the older entertainer he just met, becoming his chauffeur and boyfriend.
Damon subtly shows how Scott talks himself into an attraction. Liberace is so welcoming and Douglas so ingratiating and reasonable-sounding as his character urges a young man he just met to move in that Scott almost forgets seeing Liberace's last boy toy escorted out as Scott arrived.
The jewelry and swimming pool are great, but the attention Liberace showers on Scott proves the true draw. Liberace tells Scott, who was raised in foster homes, that he has a family now. Damon brims with affection during this scene, showing the moment when unease becomes love.
When Liberace tells Scott he wants to adopt him as his son, Scott's love only grows. Were he less needy, it probably would curdle.
But regular rules do not apply in their peculiar, insular world of two, this "Grey Gardens" with more sequins, poppers and thongs. Scott and Liberace live in a bubble of wealth and late-night casino shows a performer's world, where you can be who you want and look how you want, because the plastic surgeon is on speed dial.
The film has drawn the most attention, pre-airing, because Damon appears scantily clad in a thong or (seen from the back) only in tan lines created by that thong. Seeing the usually modest Damon this way disconcerts at first, before you see Scott's physique for what it is his only entry into a privileged world. Liberace, it turns out, is a real tiger, with a penchant for young blonds.
The sex scenes are not especially graphic, but they are bracing just by the nature of Douglas and Damon being in them.
But when Scott, who trains animals for movies, first meets Liberace, he is reaching his expiration date on being the 1970s California ideal. It's a hard truth, perpetuated by the image- obsessed Liberace and his hanger-on coterie, which includes his pulled-tight personal doctor/amphetamine pusher (Rob Lowe, bordering on the macabre).
Douglas sometimes looks frail next to the hardy Damon, but his Liberace always remains in charge of the pair's relationship. Douglas exudes an authority appropriate to a man who became a sex symbol to many women through talent, charm and sheer will.
How could the women not know he was gay? It was the 1970s, when most people had to be tipped off about the Village People. But, as Liberace tells Scott, people see what they want to see. Liberace ensures they also see what he wants them to see by moving through the world with a confidence that brooks little challenge.
Douglas approximates Liberace's nasal Wisconsin accent, but his embodiment of the pianist's profound self-assurance impresses most. It takes a second -generation Hollywood star like Douglas to duplicate such a quality so well.
But this film's version of the private Liberace derives from what might be an unreliable narrator. Thorson became a heavy drug user during his five years with Liberace, and he now sits in a Reno jail on burglary and identity theft charges.
To truly appreciate "Candelabra," it's best to view it as based on truth rather than as truth. Damon is 42 but looks younger in "Candelabra." But not young enough to approximate 18 Thorson's age when he met Liberace. An age-appropriate actor in the role would create a different dynamic.
"Candelabra" also lacks context beyond the confines of the relationship. Liberace's turnstile of young, beautiful men, for instance, indicates problems deeper than being forced into the closet by society, yet that aspect goes unexplored.
Still, "Candelabra" is an accomplished career-capper for Soderbergh (if he's truly retiring at age 50, as he says) and also reflective of his larger body of work.
Since breaking through with 1989's "sex, lies and videotape," Soderbergh has explored worlds that otherwise would have remained unexplored on screen, whether it's Liberace's romance or Channing Tatum's life as a Florida stripper in 2012's "Magic Mike."
Apart from his larkish "Ocean's" films, Soderbergh has made daring choices. He shot a zillion-hour biopic of Che Guevara on a limited budget and built an action/ exploitation film (2011's "Haywire") around cage fighter and untested actress Gina Carano.
Soderbergh also exhibits tremendous curiosity, about the human experience, or how a porn star (Sasha Grey) might carry a legitimate film 2009's "The Girlfriend Experience."
His interests run so diverse that his films, though always compelling, often lack some crucial element. In "Haywire," that element was a star as skilled at delivering lines of dialogue as delivering high kicks.
These are small complaints. No one in recent decades has made as many three-star films as Soderbergh, and no other big director besides Woody Allen made as many films, period.
Soderbergh has said he wants to retire before he loses his touch, as has happened with directors he admires. But "Candelabra," "Magic Mike" and the noir "Side Effects" all good, all out within a single year show he's still in his prime.
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.