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On TV: 'Behind the Candelabra' -- 3 stars

Michael Douglas in

Michael Douglas in "Behind the Candelabra" Credit: Michael Douglas in "Behind the Candelabra"

Behind the Candelabra
3 stars

There’s a telling moment in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra,” where Liberace (Michael Douglas) stands in front of an audience in an enormous fur coat and glittery bullfighter costume. He tells the story of one of his first concerts, when he wore a conventional black tuxedo and practically blended in with the piano, or so he felt. The tale ends with the iconic pianist asking: “Can you see me now?”

The monologue conveys the essence of the movie, an adaptation of Liberace boyfriend Scott Thorson’s memoir about their romantic relationship and subsequent fallout during the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a love story, to be sure, about the seduction of Thorson (a fantastic Matt Damon) into Liberace’s world. The men form a tangible connection despite the obstacles of a 40-year age gap and contrasting personalities.

But, above all, the film is about the celebrity lifestyle writ large, evoking the particular blend of ego, talent and extravagance that accompanies stardom.

Soderbergh relishes the garish, outsized setting. The camera slowly moves its way around every inch of Liberace’s golden terrain, taking in the grand chandeliers and lamp-lit interiors.

In some ways, Thorson is just another trophy, with his immaculate abs and Adonis appearance soaked up on screen, though Damon imbues him with the dignity of a real, openhearted person. The relationship takes some off-putting turns into melodrama: Liberace demands that Thorson get plastic surgery to look more like him; there are overt incestuous overtures, as Liberace speaks openly of adopting his lover.

And yet Douglas, giving his best performance in ages, conveys the vulnerability that informs the ostentatious weirdness. Various factors play key roles: Liberace’s difficult relationship with his mother and the trauma and loneliness of being an aging superstar.

But the actor doesn’t just mimic Liberace’s showy mannerisms and vocals; he transforms the quiet moments into an affecting portrait of a performer wrestling with the fact that his time in the spotlight has begun winding down.

After all, it’s that natural human need to be seen, and Liberace’s drive to always be the center of attention, that set the showman apart.

“Behind the Candelabra” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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