NEW YORK – 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 like 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, Michael Douglas is a 68-year-old movie star known for he-man performances and morally ambiguous roles. And he was no piano player.
But Douglas now dazzles as Liberace in the new HBO film, “Behind the Candelabra,” including lavish musical numbers where he tinkles the ivories and flourishes his jewel-and-ermine finery. The film (executive produced by show-biz veteran Jerry Weintraub, a Liberace friend) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.
Douglas’ co-star is Matt Damon, who, in a casting choice almost as counterintuitive, 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” (whose title cites the trademark prop ornamenting his onstage piano) 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 show-biz 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,” said 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 in a separate interview: “The question for us was, How do we make this look like a marriage that we recognize? 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,”’ said Douglas. “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.”
“He’s being nice,” laughed Damon, 42, when told what Douglas had said. “He would’ve done it in a second! He’d never turn down a great role.”
Why did Damon say yes to man-to-man pillow talk and sequined thongs?
“I’ve never said no to Steven,” he replied, noting he had worked with Soderbergh before in “The Informant!” and the “Ocean” 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 began, calling Liberace by the given name he never used professionally. “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,” he said. “I don’t smile a lot in my pictures. I’m always so goddamn 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 mold him into a young Liberace (one of the remarkable makeup 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 unsuccessfully 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.
This death scene is particularly haunting for anyone who followed Douglas’ recent near-death experience. “Candelabra” is his comeback performance after a brutal six-month regimen of radiation and chemotherapy for stage 4 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.
“Yeah, I did,” he nodded. “I was enraptured by the joy that Lee had. He was a bit of sunshine to me.”
But Liberace also had a dark side. This, Douglas also captures despite a refusal to acknowledge it.
“It sort of happened,” he said. “It was there in the story.”
And while he allowed that “Candelabra” viewers might see Liberace as tormented and self-destructive, among sunnier traits, “I didn’t see him that way. I didn’t see a dark side to him.
“My career has been more in the gray area, if not the dark area,” Douglas went on (needing to point no further than rapacious money man Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” a character for which he won a best-actor Oscar, then revived it in the 2010 sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”).
Playing Liberace “was so much fun!” he said. “You put on this mask and it allows you to do anything you want. I don’t get to do that very often. My movies are usually about stripping off the makeup, getting down to the skeleton.”
In “Candelabra,” Douglas certainly got to wear a lot of makeup, and subsequent projects should allow him to embody other colorful characters — such as President Ronald Reagan in the film he was about to start, “Reykjavik.”
“I’ve always been somebody who, when I started a picture, never knew what the next picture would be,” Douglas said. “But during this two-year-plus hiatus, a bunch of good material came my way.”
As he spoke, he had already wrapped a comedy called “Last Vegas.” Ahead is a Rob Reiner film with Diane Keaton, and a couple after that.
“I’m at an age where I can try different things, do much different stuff than I thought I could do,” he summed up, looking pleased at a career (and himself) unexpectedly reborn. “I’m starting over. What I went through with Liberace has given me the confidence for this.”