Director Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET, on HBO) is one of the smartest, tartest examples I've ever seen of that soupy genre, the Hollywood biopic.
Michael Douglas – simply great – plays Liberace, once upon a time billed as Mr. Showmanship. Wikipedians probably know him as a closeted Vegas piano act who performed under staggering amounts of fur, jewels and sequins – with his thick toupee, he looked like Bob Mackie's idea of a snow owl – and who died of complications from AIDS in 1987.
The Liberace we see here – middle-aged and in the disco 1970s, with plenty of adoring female fans – is an obligingly (and cagily) pleasant creature who lives within the confines of a sparkly little kingdom he has forged from wealth and talent.
He has appetites – for bling, sex, kitsch – and he satisfies them because he can. There's not much that connects his pampered, casually amoral life to existence as understood by non-celebrities: Liberace is Liberace, much as Sinatra was Sinatra. Only campier. One might call his entourage the Fab Pack.
As to music, he expresses little interest in it, except as the vehicle to his success. The genius of Chopin doesn't matter nearly as much as the skill of Liberace's plastic surgeon (a hilariously grotesque Rob Lowe, looking like something from Death Becomes Her).
Into this world Liberace carefully, methodically introduces a new, younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, gamely playing brick-stupid). Liberace just as methodically excretes him after he becomes a drug addict and threatens to upset the gilded apple cart. The story is a devastatingly simple parable about money, ego and power – and how they are maintained – in the dream factory.
Douglas, whose performances can suggest a reptilian cool beneath the skin, brings a touch of that here, even when flirtatiously batting his eyes at the boys. He's Mr. Soullessness.