TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This Sunday on HBO director Steven Soderbergh presents his new film, "Behind the Candelabra," a show biz love story about Las Vegas entertainer Liberace, played by Michael Douglas, and his relationship with a much younger boyfriend, played by Matt Damon. They kept their relationship secret from the public. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Before you see any of "Behind the Candelabra," when you just consider the concept of the TV movie and its casting, this new HBO film's production raises all sorts of questions. How much will be based on verifiable fact and how much will be fictionalized? On an anything-goes premium cable network such as HBO, how graphic will the sex scenes be?
And the most important questions involve the drama's two leading men playing an ultra flamboyant piano player and the wide eyed young man who becomes his behind the scenes companion for five years. Michael Douglas? Matt Damon? Let's dispense with the biggest curiosity factor - the casting - right away.
"Behind the Candelabra" structures its story quite cleverly by starting with Damon as shaggy-haired Scott Torson, a farm boy of sorts, who works as a dog trainer for Hollywood films, lives with protective older foster parents, and is first shown in 1977, shyly allowing himself to be approached at a bar by another man.
Damon's Scott is all aw-shucks innocence and when a friend takes him to Las Vegas to see a Liberace show, it's like taking a trip to Oz. They walk into the Hilton's show room while the performance is in full swing - and so do we - hit immediately and viscerally by the excessive glitz of it all. The gold, glass-topped grand piano, Liberace's silver sequined suit and heavily teased hair.
And of course, his heavily rehearsed casual stage patter with which he entertains the audience while playing piano, sometimes with only one hand. You start the scene watching Michael Douglas, but in seconds you're carried away - or at least dumbfounded - by Liberace.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEHIND THE CANDELABRA")
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) As the next part of the boogie-woogie is so strange that it calls for an explanation, is called a boogie-woogie break. And when I'm playing it and, like, stop at a certain point, you're going to think I forgot the music. But I didn't forget the music; there's just no music written for that part. That's why they call it a break. Hey!
(as Liberace) Ah, this is fun.
BIANCULLI: Yes, it is. And when Scott's friend Bobby, played by Scott Bakula, ushers him backstage after the show to meet the star, young Scott is instantly taken in by the larger-than-life persona he encounters. And so are we. Because Michael Douglas, who personified the male libido in "Fatal Attraction," commits to the character of Liberace so completely and so convincingly.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEHIND THE CANDELABRA")
SCOTT BAKULA: (as Bobby) Hey. Look who's here.
DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Hello, Bobby.
BAKULA: (as Bobby) Hi. Lee, you were fantastic. This is my friend, Scott Thorson. His first time in Las Vegas.
DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Oh. A lost babe in the woods, huh? It's like a Disney movie, little Bambi.
(as Liberace) It's very nice to meet you.
MATT DAMON: (as Scott) You were incredible out there.
DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Oh, just a piano player. But everybody did seem to enjoy themselves, didn't they?
DAMON: (as Scott) Oh - oh, yeah.
BIANCULLI: From this point on, "Behind the Candelabra" is pretty much the arc of a show biz love affair between a Vegas icon and an innocent who gets remade to embody that star's specific fantasies. It's like "Elvis and Me," that TV movie about Elvis and Priscilla Presley, except in this case it's boy meets boy, boy gets boy, boy loses boy.
The script is written by Richard LaGravenese, who also wrote the scripts for "The Fisher King" and "The Horse Whisperer." And his approach is to underscore the similarities between a gay and a straight relationship, not the differences. So, yes, Damon and Douglas share a few love scenes and sex scenes and bubble baths. But nothing in "Behind the Candelabra" feels gratuitous.
And though the behind the scenes dialogue shouldn't be taken as gospel, the over-the-top settings and costumes and music are as authentic as possible. The music, in fact, is adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, whose contributions here were his last film work before he died. Director Soderbergh, who worked with Michael Douglas on "Traffic" and Matt Damon on the "Ocean's 11" films and others, does Liberace's story justice on stage and off.
And as an extra bonus, he packs the movie with big names playing small roles. Debbie Reynolds is Liberace's mom. Dan Ackroyd is his manager. Rob Lowe is his plastic surgeon and Paul Reiser as a lawyer. But it's the two central stars who really make "Behind the Candelabra" work. For Matt Damon, it's a role that shows a different side of him, not full frontal, but emotionally.
And for Michael Douglas, after being stricken with cancer, it's about as showy a comeback role as anyone could imagine. And Douglas doesn't just pull it off; he owns it.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.