Star turns for Lib­er­ace film

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - PLAYCONTENTS -

THE idea of Michael Dou­glas play­ing Lib­er­ace might seem nearly as out­ra­geous as Lib­er­ace him­self.

Lib­er­ace, for­ever hailed as Mr Show­man­ship, was the ex­cess-to-the-max pi­anist-per­son­al­ity whose on­stage and off­stage ex­trav­a­gance were leg­endary and who wowed au­di­ences in Las Vegas and world­wide to be­come the best-paid en­ter­tainer on the planet dur­ing his hey­day from the 1950s to the 1970s.

He was the fore­run­ner of flashy, gen­der-ben­der en­ter­tain­ers such as El­ton John, David Bowie, Madonna and Lady Gaga even as he kept a tight lid on his gay pri­vate life, which he feared could have ended his ca­reer had it come out.

By con­trast, Dou­glas, 68, is a movie star known for he-man per­for­mances and morally am­bigu­ous roles. He was no pi­ano player, but he dazzles as Lib­er­ace in the new film Be­hind the Can­de­labra, in­clud­ing lav­ish mu­si­cal num­bers in which he tin­kles the ivories and flour­ishes his jewel-and-er­mine fin­ery.

Dou­glas’ co-star is Matt Da­mon, who plays Scott Thor­son, a dreamy, strap­ping teen who in 1977 met Lib­er­ace in his Vegas dress­ing room and al­most in­stantly be­came his per­sonal as­sis­tant, live-in com­pan­ion and top-se­cret lover.

Can­de­labra also fea­tures Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser, Deb­bie Reynolds and a hi­lar­i­ous turn by Rob Lowe as Lib­er­ace’s on-call plas­tic sur­geon.

It was the film’s di­rec­tor, Steven Soder­bergh, who brought to­gether the two lead ac­tors, helped shape their splen­did per­for­mances and mas­ter­minded this por­trait of a loving but bizarre and tem­pes­tu­ous af­fair.

This show­biz saga may be over the top, but there’s plenty of depth and it dives deep.

‘‘We played the script and tried not to wink at the au­di­ence,’’ says Dou­glas.

‘‘It’s a great love story. I watch it and I for­get about Matt and my­self. Then, pretty soon, I prac­ti­cally for­get it’s two guys. The con­ver­sa­tions and ar­gu­ments sound like any ol’ cou­ple.’’

Adds Da­mon: ‘‘The ques­tion for us was how do we make this look like a mar­riage that we recog­nise.

‘‘Most of our scenes we could re­late to be­cause we’re both in long-term mar­riages. It was a male-fe­male story with two guys.’’

Well, maybe. But that doesn’t over­ride the risk fac­tor for Dou­glas and Da­mon as they tack­led roles dra­mat­i­cally at odds with their im­ages and past work.

‘‘I looked at Matt and thought, ‘Man, this guy’s brave’. It’s one thing for me at my age to stretch a lit­tle bit and try dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. But Bourne! A man in the prime of his ca­reer go­ing this route? I was in awe of Matt’s courage,’’ says Dou­glas.

‘‘He’s be­ing nice,’ says Da­mon. ‘‘He would’ve done it in a sec­ond! He’d never turn down a great role.’’

Why did Da­mon, 42, say yes to man-to-man pil­low talk and se­quined thongs?

‘‘I’ve never said no to Steven,’’ he says, not­ing he worked with Soder­bergh be­fore in The In­for­mant! and the Oceans tril­ogy.

‘‘It doesn’t get any more fun than work­ing with Steven.’’

Dou­glas, too, had been in Soder­bergh films in­clud­ing the 2000 thriller Traf­fic, dur­ing whose pro­duc­tion the di­rec­tor first pro­posed Dou­glas play­ing Lib­er­ace. Why did he agree? ‘‘First of all, Lee was a nice guy,’’ Dou­glas says, us­ing the name Lib­er­ace’s friends called him.

‘‘He was a lovely, lovely guy. I don’t play many nice guys.’’

Dou­glas nails Lib­er­ace’s vel­vety, nasal voice and al­most-ever-present pearly smile.

‘‘One of the things I en­joyed about this part was I got to smile. I don’t smile a lot in my pic­tures. I’m al­ways so . . . grim.’’

Still, in Can­de­labra, there isn’t al­ways lots to smile about. Thor­son, a child of foster care, falls sway to Lib­er­ace’s charm and sup­port, but it comes with a price.

He is sub­jected to plas­tic surgery to mould him into a young Lib­er­ace (one of the re­mark­able make-up trans­for­ma­tions Da­mon un­der­goes). He also be­comes hooked on drugs in his mis­sion to stay slim for Lib­er­ace, and, af­ter a few years, his ad­dic­tion and Lib­er­ace’s phi­lan­der­ing bring a cruel end to the re­la­tion­ship, af­ter which Thor­son sues for pal­imony.

Dou­glas, too, sports a va­ri­ety of looks. Lib­er­ace is seen be­fore and af­ter his own plas­tic-surgery re­fresher, and, in a fi­nal scene, gravely sick from an AIDS-re­lated ill­ness from which he died in 1987 at age 67.

Be­hind the Can­de­labra is Dou­glas’ come­back per­for­mance af­ter a bru­tal six-month reg­i­men of ra­di­a­tion and chemo­ther­apy for throat can­cer in 2010.

When he stepped in front of the cam­eras af­ter his own brush with mor­tal­ity, he seems to have em­braced Lib­er­ace as a pos­i­tive life force and a fit­ting way to get back in the game.

Be­hind the Can­de­labra opens to­day.


Matt Da­mon as Scott Thor­son and Michael Dou­glas as Lib­er­ace in Be­hind the Can­de­labra.

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