Jack Garner: HBO's Liberace biopic, starring Michael Douglas, is superb

05:00 AM, May 23, 2013

Michael Douglas, left, plays Liberace, and Matt Damon is Scott Thorson in Behind the Candelabra. (Claudette Barius//AP)/


Written By Jack Garner

When noted director Steven Soderbergh was working with veteran actor Michael Douglas on the 2000 film Traffic, Douglas entertained the cast and crew between shots with an impromptu and dead-on impression of the fabled Las Vegas showman, Liberace. That was enough to prompt Soderbergh to investigate the possibility of a biopic about the flamboyant pianist and entertainer, to star Douglas.

The result, Behind the Candelabra, is upon us — and it’s fabulous, and both ritzy and raunchy. The film was shown recently at the Cannes Film Festival and will debut on HBO at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Indeed, Douglas is uncanny as Liberace. You can bet he’ll be in the running for the next round of Emmy Awards (as will the film). His equal is Matt Damon as the considerably younger Scott Thorson, who becomes Liberace’s on- and off-stage assistant, his lover, and, bizarrely, a surrogate son. The film is based on Thorson’s memoir of their relationship, which led to the “outing” of Liberace, who long hid his homosexuality (to the point of suing media over the issue).

Soderbergh’s film is intriguing and superbly crafted. Beyond its through-the-keyhole examination of Liberace’s lifestyle, the film also demonstrates his undeniable talent as a pianist whose flashy garb and wild stage behavior paved the way for Little Richard, Elton John, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.

And Douglas’ performance, despite the rhinestone glitz, gets surprising emotional mileage out of his complex characterization.

Behind the Candelabra also features supporting performances by several actors who are nearly unrecognizable, due to intense makeup and full-throttle performances. They include Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon who clearly relies too heavily on his own work, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s manager (complete with a purposefully off-kilter bad wig), and most especially Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s eccentric mother. (I didn’t know it was Reynolds until I read it in the closing credits.)

REEL MIND SCREENINGS. The Reel Mind, one of Rochester’s smaller but important film festivals, is underway over the next few weeks at The Cinema, 957 Clinton Ave. Three films remain in the series, and each is programmed with talkbacks among filmmakers or mental health professionals.

The Reel Mind films are about mental illness, addiction and brain disorders, and the series is a collaborative effort of mental health agencies hoping to address the social stigma of mental illness and provide a hopeful message. Ruth Cowing and Larry Guttmacher head a committee that selects the films.

Up next, at 7 p.m. on May 28, is Praying With Lior, a moving documentary portrait of a young Jewish boy with Down syndrome whose constant praying is a inspiration to some and an embarrassment to others. The New York Times labeled the film a “Critic’s Pick” and calls it “extraordinary … touching.” The trade paper Variety calls the film “a crowd-pleasing delight.”

At 7 p.m. on June 11 the festival showcases Different Is the New Normal, an intimate fly-on-the-wall portrait about a high school student attempting to overcome the uncontrollable tics caused by Tourette syndrome. Michael J. Fox narrates.

At 7 p.m. on June 25 the 2013 festival closes with A Sister’s Call, a documentary about a woman who reconnects with her brother 20 years after he disappeared into the world of homelessness. He shows up on her doorstep after the two decades, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The film portrays the woman’s long, hard journey to bring her brother back. The film has won several awards at film festivals.

HEMINGWAY’S FAVORITE DRINKS. Among the more debatable attributes of the literature of Ernest Hemingway is the author’s obvious love of a good mixed drink, both in the hands of many of his characters and, most notably, in his own. That’s why, as a Hemingway fan, I thoroughly enjoyed a recently published book on the author’s favorite drinks, and where the various daiquiris, mojitos, and whiskey sours fit into his novels and stories.

And you have to love the book’s title, To Have and Have Another (a play on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not), by Philip Greene, who displays himself as a thoroughly researching Hemingway scholar and drink expert. He’s a founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans (a site to add to my list for my next visit to one of my favorite cities).

Best of all, To Have and Have Another provides recipes for more than 50 of Papa’s favorite drinks, along with fresh anecdotes about Hemingway and several of his famous watering holes (such as Sloppy Joe’s, Harry’s Bar, and The Floridita).