During his lifetime, Liberace sued (and won) when publications hinted at his homosexuality. In “Behind the Candelabra,” former lover Scott Thorson gets the final word, serving as the basis of a film that gleefully thrusts itself into those aspects of Liberace’s lifestyle which the flamboyant showman was careful not to show the public. Ironically, despite being the most bigscreen-worthy film that director Steven Soderbergh has made since “Che,” this eye-popping biopic will unspool Stateside on HBO, while receiving theatrical treatment abroad, where the star power of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon will draw masses to performances unlike any in their careers.

A production designer’s dream and a gay man’s nightmare, “Behind the Candelabra” re-creates the lavish living environment and stage shows Liberace orchestrated between 1977 and his death in 1986 of HIV-related complications, while presenting the world with a sort of worst-case version of predatory homosexuality, in which an older man of means identifies, seduces and eventually tosses aside a naive, cornfed young country stud.

“Candelabra” could be seen in some circles as the anti-“Milk”: Where that film offered a hagiographic whitewash of Harvey Milk’s complicated private life for the sake of contemporary gay rights, Richard LaGravenese’s script revels in some of the more sordid details surrounding Liberace, potentially stoking the panic that the youth aren’t safe from such characters — or the impression that Liberace was anything other than a sui generis entertainer.

Historically speaking, Thorson was just 16 when he met Liberace. Damon convincingly plays the pianist’s young companion from his late teens to mid-20s in the film. Although the actor undeniably delivers an astonishing performance — perhaps the most demanding of his career given the role’s emotional upheaval and physical transformation— the casting represents an opportunity missed, considering the role could potentially have launched a young unknown, the way “Boogie Nights” did the film career of Mark Wahlberg.

Meanwhile, the choice of Douglas to play Liberace represents a stroke of divine inspiration, reportedly dating back to a spontaneous impression the actor performed on the set of “Traffic.” More than a decade ago, the role was once linked to Robin Williams, but the genius of “Candelabra’s” casting is that Soderbergh fills the lead roles with serious actors and then surrounds them with comedic performers: Dan Aykroyd portrays Liberace’s slovenly ’70s manager, Debbie Reynolds plays his heavily accented Polish mother, Rob Lowe parodies his personal fountain-of-youth aesthetic as Liberace’s quack plastic surgeon.

Speaking of plastic surgery, the film provides the meta-delight of Douglas’ performance being enhanced by whatever work the star has had done. A crafty combination of makeup, visual effects and camera angles serve to add weight, subtract years, lift skin and accentuate sagging pectorals as the script demands — and yet the essence of the character comes across via Douglas’ meticulous technique, whether vocal or physical. It’s an uncanny impersonation and, quite astonishingly, the first nonfictional character the actor has portrayed onscreen. But this is no mere caricature: Douglas brings real dimension to the role, exploring the difference between the pianist’s on- and offstage personas, grappling with the effects of age on an entertainer and trying to reconcile Liberace’s pattern of attraction to young men with what the pic paints as genuinely paternal feelings.

Though its two-hour running time has a tendency to feel like three, the film is cleverly constructed to foreshadow Thorson’s own dismissal from Liberace’s graces even at the moment when the two first meet — a scene partially viewed from the perspective of Dueling Pianos prodigy Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), a b.f. clearly on his way out. Whereas it might have been too easy, and certainly tempting, for Damon to portray Thorson as either idiot or opportunist, the actor takes the naive route, upsetting the potential “All About Eve”-like quality of his ascendance.

The way up is creepy enough, full of hot-tub champagne toasts and bedside repartee. Phone calls home to Thorson’s foster parents (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown) grow strained as Liberace lavishes his orphaned young lover with gifts and offers of adoption. Creepier still is Liberace’s dream to remake Thorson in his own image, paying for plastic surgery, and an addictive pharmacological “California diet,” the explicit portrayal of which handily tops whatever discomfort some auds may have watching the film’s un-shy portrayal of same-sex coupling. The film makes no overt statement for or against gay relationships, though there’s something to be said for the fact that the increasingly tiresome second act — in which Liberace insists on an open relationship and Thorson descends into drug addiction — mirrors many of the cliches one might find in cautionary tales of straight celebs.

Soderbergh clearly delights in the chance to recreate Liberace’s extravagant costumes and palatial living quarters, while challenging auds’ comfort zones in the film’s depiction of a Douglas-Damon mouth-lock or, in one virtuoso single-shot scene, a trip into the blacklight-illuminated backroom of a Vegas sex arcade. As usual, the director operates the camera himself, though his approach takes full advantage of the meticulously re-created world, rather than run-and-gunning it as he has in recent years. Though it teases with the occasional butt shot, the pic proves its attention to period detail by giving Damon’s Thorson a triangle-shaped bikini tan.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Behind the Candelabra’

Reviewed at HBO screening room, Santa Monica, May 14, 2013. (In Cannes Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 118 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Films release and presentation of a Jerry Weintraub presentation. (International sales: HBO Enterprises, New York.) Produced by Gregory Jacobs, Susan Ekins, Michael Polaire. Executive producer, Jerry Weintraub.
  • Crew: Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay, Richard LaGravanese, based on the book "Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace" by Scott Thorson. Camera (color, HD), Peter Andrews; editor, Mary-Ann Bernard; executive music producer, Marvin Hamlisch; music supervisor, Evyen J. Klean; supervising art director, Patrick M. Sullivan, Jr.; production designer, Howard Cummings; set decorator, Barbara Munch Cameron; costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick; sound (Dolby Digital), Dennis Towns; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Larry Blake; visual effects supervisor, Thomas J. Smith; visual effects, Shade VFX, Fotokem; special effects coordinator, David Waine; special effects supervisor, Josh Hakian; assistant director, Gregory Jacobs; casting, Carmen Cuba.
  • With: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Bruce Ramsay, Nicky Katt, Cheyenne Jackson, Debbie Reynolds, Boyd Holbrook, Jane Morris, Garrett M. Brown.