Michael Douglas plays showman Liberace in "Behind the Candelabra," which...

Michael Douglas plays showman Liberace in "Behind the Candelabra," which premiered May 26 on HBO. Credit: MCT

THE TV-MOVIE "Behind the Candelabra"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The year is 1977, and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), an animal trainer for the movies, goes to see a Vegas performance of the dazzling, bejeweled, fur magnet "Mr. Showmanship" himself, Liberace (Michael Douglas). His friend Bob (Scott Bakula) later introduces him to "Lee" backstage. Soon, Thorson is drawn into Liberace's gold lamé world, controlled primarily by his unctuous lawyer, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), and inhabited by assorted hangers-on, pet poodles, cars and (of course) candelabra. Before long, the much-younger Scott becomes his lover.

MY SAY The incandescently creepy Vegas Gothic "Candelabra" may at first remind some viewers of a few old Johnny Depp adventures in cinema -- especially "Ed Wood" -- until you realize this is something utterly, outrageously original.

How outrageous? How original? Douglas and Damon in torrid, passionate bed play? Is that outrageous enough? In a spirit even the subject might grudgingly admire, this film is a masterpiece of campy excess. Everything is pushed right to the edge, and that it doesn't topple over in a flaming heap is tribute to a pair of brilliant performances -- though Damon's is first among equals -- and an absorbing production that is morbidly fascinating from start to finish.

Douglas' Liberace is a self-deluding, self-pitying narcissist who trades up lovers like cars, then discards them or -- in Thorson's case -- remodels them into a creepily idealized version of himself. Think -- director Steven Soderbergh ("Magic Mike") certainly does -- Dorian Gray. Damon's Thorson is simply a lost -- and corruptible -- soul. It sounds sad, and is, but there's also plenty of humor here. The camp is often played for laughs or, when Rob Lowe's Dr. Jack Startz -- Lee's plastic surgeon -- chews up his portion of the scenery, for belly laughs.

BOTTOM LINE Weirdly enough, a winner.


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