I was pleasantly surprised yesterday evening to find that my television satellite company was providing a free weekend of HBO. The first show that I stumbled across that I wanted to see was Behind the Candelabra, an HBO biopic about the last ten years of the life of the flamboyant showman and pianist, Liberace.
But first, a personal story - one that I have heard in family tales and assume to be true. Back during the time period that this film covers, the late seventies through the mid-to-late eighties, a grand uncle of my children, one they never met, was traveling the country taking professional photographs of national parks, particularly the features related to handicapped accessibility. The uncle was wheelchair-bound and was working to educate the public about the need for handicapped accessibility.
One day, while the uncle was in Las Vegas where his mother was living in a rest home, he went out to take pictures of the sights in and around Sin City. He found Liberace's home and was taking pictures from the sidewalk. It was reportedly Liberace himself who spied the man in the wheelchair taking pictures with a large, expensive camera - and he sent a couple of his proteges out to invite the photographer inside. The uncle reported that Liberace was a good host and very nice man.
The movie, Behind the Candelabra, tells the story of the love affair between Liberace and his much younger companion and assistant, Scott Thorson. It is based on a book by Thorson, so the story casts him in a more vulnerable and sympathetic light than it does Liberace. The film chronicles the build-up and break-up of their romance, Thorson's descent into drug addiction, and Liberace's ultimate death from AIDS.
Behind the Candelabra is not a very happy movie, but it is a very good movie. The script, direction, and acting are all exceptional to the point that this television movie wound up being nominated for fifteen Emmy awards.
Michael Douglas seamlessly transposed himself into the spectacular showman, all aglow in flowing furs and shiny baubles. He had the voice and mannerisms that anyone who was around watching television at the time remembers so well. It would be quite surprising if Douglas did not take home an Emmy for this very challenging role.
But it was Matt Damon who stole the show as the naive, but willing boyfriend, Scott Thorson. Damon, enveloped in his gay persona, was almost unrecognizable - a huge tribute to his abilities as an actor. (One small note of criticism, however. Thorson was only seventeen-years-old when he began his six-year affair with Liberace. The forty-two-year-old Damon, while he walked into the Las Vegas setting as young, sweet, and innocent - could have passed for twenty-five, or thirty, but definitely not seventeen.)
The chemistry between Douglas and Damon was intense and believable.
The other character of note in the film was Rob Lowe who played a gay, dope-dealing plastic surgeon. Lowe, like Damon, was so into his role that he was almost entirely subsumed by the character - to the point that he, too, was barely recognizable. Anyone who has ever doubted Rob Lowe's acting ability needs to see this film.
Debbie Reynolds and Dan Ackroyd were also featured in Behind the Candelabra, and like Douglas, Damon, and Lowe, they became the characters they were playing to the point that their real personalities disappeared. I did not realize who they actually were until the credits ran at the end of the film.
Behind the Candelabra is a great slice of entertainment history, but far more than that, it is an exceptional vehicle for displaying the immense talents of some wonderful contemporary actors.
All of that, and it was free! Thank you, HBO!