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Michael Douglas Nails Liberace in Lurid ‘Candelabra’: TV

'Behind the Candelabra'
Michael Douglas as pianist Liberace in "Behind the Candelabra." The film is based on the 1988 book by Scott Thorson. Photographer: Claudette Barius/HBO via Bloomberg

Liberace was his own worst-kept secret for decades, grasping at lies even on his deathbed.

“I don’t want to be remembered as some old queen who died of AIDS,” bemoans the expiring, skeletal piano man, his Wisconsin accent mimicked uncannily by Michael Douglas in Steven Soderbergh’s leering, extravagant HBO biopic “Behind the Candelabra.”

Handsomely art-directed down to its last detail (which might just be the gold jewelry box filled with amyl nitrite poppers), and performed with the blend of enthusiasm and wiggery that begs for awards, “Candelabra” is based on the 1988 tell-all by the showman’s much-younger lover Scott Thorson.

Thorson, played by 42-year-old Matt Damon, was 18 (17 by some accounts) when he met and moved in with Wladziu Valentino Liberace -- Lee to friends and houseboys -- for five years beginning in 1977.

Whatever has been lurking behind Liberace’s candelabra -- or beneath his sheets, in his wig closet or on the floor of a sleazy sex club -- isn’t nearly as intriguing as the question that goes unanswered by Soderbergh and his A-list cast:

What’s their point?

Priggish Voyeurism

The prestige they’ve lent this project -- Debbie Reynolds cameos as Liberace’s mother, and the late Marvin Hamlisch adapted the music -- suggests if not gravitas, at least some purpose beyond priggish voyeurism.

Such purpose isn’t to be found in the pedestrian script by Richard LaGravenese (“The Bridges of Madison County”), and Soderbergh forfeits higher artistic claims well before he shows a plastic surgeon’s scalpel slicing through scalp.

For a true-life story idiosyncratic enough to encompass matching facelifts, floor-length ostrich-feather coats and a running joke about Sonja Henie, “Candelabra” is remarkably familiar.

We’ve seen it all before, from “Sunset Boulevard” to countless “Behind the Music” episodes.

The script sands down the thornier aspects of the real Scott -- an end note primly states Thorson “currently lives in Reno, Nevada,” failing to mention his incarceration there.

In this telling, young Thorson is all farm-boy innocence, a teenage Jonathan Harker wandering into Count Dracula’s pillow-strewn castle.

Had Soderbergh or producer Jerry Weintraub cast an actual teen as Thorson, the aging Liberace’s creep factor mightn’t have needed the nasty, petty embellishments it gets here.

Gold Slippers

Soderbergh doesn’t merely reveal Liberace’s baldness -- he makes sure we see the liver spots. He gawks at the fussy gold slippers and pampered poodles with smug disapproval.

Despite an unearned grace note at the film’s funereal end, “Candelabra” doesn’t traffic in compassion, even of the misguided sort displayed in David Mamet’s recent HBO biopic “Phil Spector.”

And with the exception of Rob Lowe’s hilariously feline-faced plastic surgeon, “Candelabra” is too judgmental to find any true delight in all the Vegas vulgarity and uber-camp flamboyance.

In the end, that failing might have offended Liberace more than anything.

“Behind the Candelabra” debuts at the Cannes Film Festival today, then airs Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **

“Ghost Army”

This odd little footnote to World War II has been told before: America’s so-called Ghost Army used inflatable tanks and pre-recorded sound effects to distract enemy attention from the real thing.

But Rick Beyer’s hour-long PBS documentary “The Ghost Army” should stand as the definitive telling. Without overselling the top-secret mission’s achievements, Beyer neatly captures the fascinating, if relatively minor, scope of the strange project.

With its movie-set tanks, trucks and artillery, the 1,100-man roving division set up camp in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, diverting German reconnaissance.

“None of us took it that seriously,” recalls Ghost Army Sgt. Victor Dowd, “until we got fired at and shot, when reality struck.”

“The Ghost Army” airs tonight at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Broadway box office.

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