"Disgusting is in the eyes of the disgusting," Michael Douglas declares as Liberace, and that's the kind of showbiz philosophy that made Liberace an American legend. In Steven Soderbergh's new HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, the Vegas entertainer makes his grand entrance onstage, playing his mirror-tiled piano for an audience of adoring blue-haired old ladies who have no idea he's gay. He peacocks in all his Seventies finery – glitter in his hair, a rhinestone-studded silver suit and as much jewelry as human fingers can hold. "Stare as long as you want," he tells the fans. "You paid for it!"
Liberace would be delighted to know that people still know his name. Virtually nobody born since the Fifties has ever heard his records, yet the name Liberace stands for the gaudy essence of pop artifice. Everybody knows what it means when Dr. Dre boasts, "Diamonds shining, looking like I robbed Liberace."
Behind the Candelabra dishes the dirt on the relationship that led to Liberace being sued for palimony in the early Eighties by a sweet young thing named Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. Liberace spots Scott backstage in 1977, whisks him off to the mansion, molds him into a plastic-surgery replica of his younger self and promises to adopt him. Although the film is based on Thorson's book, he comes off as much less likable than Liberace – so needy, such a heartless leech, compared to this harmlessly shallow old bag who brags, "I personally support the entire Austrian rhinestone business."
Douglas and Damon both do astonishingly brave work – it's fantastic to see Douglas back on his feet, so vibrant after his recent battle with cancer, making his big comeback in an unexpectedly perfect role. One moment, his Liberace is frail and helpless; the next, he's back in the spotlight, living large in his white virgin-fox coat. ("The only clothing in the world that has its own car and driver," we learn.)
Soderbergh takes a disarmingly subtle approach to themes that might seem familiar at first: the price of fame, the dark side of Vegas, cocaine as a hell of a drug, etc. But he brilliantly lets the details pile up, as we get the full dehumanizing ennui of living the Liberace fantasy. It's the same routine, the same ornate hot tub, the same champagne in the ice bucket day after day.
Rob Lowe has a priceless role as a sleazy plastic surgeon and Dan Aykroyd is equally great as Liberace's manager, who has seen plenty of Scotts come and go over the years. Debbie Reynolds is Liberace's Polish mother, who sits around the mansion, as sluggish as everyone else, playing a "Win With Liberace" slot machine – except when she hits the jackpot, nobody has any actual cash to pay her off.
Behind the Candelabra shows the weirdness of the old-school Hollywood closet: no matter how flamboyant he was, Liberace would never dare come out. He was from the bad old days before Elton, before Bowie, a time when even Freddie Mercury was in the closet. Liberace once sued a London tabloid for insinuating he was gay, testified he was straight – and won. Imagine a world that never guessed George Michael was into dudes, and you have just imagined the world that made Liberace possible.
Yet there's nothing tragic or pitiful about him. Even at the end, when he's dying of AIDS in 1987 and lying to the press about it, he loves being Liberace. When Bob Dylan played the Letterman show in 1984, his backstage request was, "I wanna meet Liberace." And in Behind the Candelabra, you can see why. There will never be another like him.
This story is from the June 6th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.