Michael Douglas is one of the most aggressively sexual, insistently heterosexual actors in the history of cinema, one of those hyper-masculine types that has all but disappeared in an age when audiences seem to prefer men wearing the tights.

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Like a moth to a flame
Like a moth to a flame

Behind the Candelabra (M) 4 stars
Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe
DIRECTOR STEVEN SODERBERGH
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

Michael Douglas is one of the most aggressively sexual, insistently heterosexual actors in the history of cinema, one of those hyper-masculine types that has all but disappeared in an age when audiences seem to prefer men wearing the tights.

So casting the star of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct as Liberace, the flamboyant classical pianist who never admitted to being gay in his lifetime (therefore remaining weirdly chaste to the public eye), is an audacious move on the part of Behind the Candelabra director Steven Soderbergh.

His Liberace is no mamma's boy but a confident, highly sexed gay man with a revolving door of young lovers - quite literally, according to Soderbergh's bracingly honest movie, with one coiffed hunk being ushered out of his gilded Las Vegas mansion at the same as another arrives.

Behind the Candelabra is told from the point of view of one of those interchangeable toy boys, Scott Thorson, an animal trainer for the movie industry who met Liberace when he was 16, entered the musician's employ at the age of 17 and, according to his 1988 memoir on which the film is based, was his lover for five years.

Thus Behind the Candelabra is not a career-straddling biopic but is centred on a single relationship that nonetheless takes us deep into the supposedly glittering showbiz world - a hugely entertaining study of indulgence and excess, of power and exploitation, of our pandering to celebrity and, in the end, of the loneliness and sadness of people who seem to have it all.

It is also an intriguing examination of the contradictions of what was supposed to be the sexual revolution, when the mass media was fixated on the carnal yet one of the era's biggest names had to live in the closet, if you call dressing in sparkling suits with ruffles and feathered robes in the closet (how didn't people know?).

Telling the story from the point of view of Scott (Matt Damon) also allows us to be as startled as the gormless orphan farm boy when he enters Liberace's kitsch kingdom and a lifestyle more akin to a European monarch, replete with hip-swivelling "house boys" (indeed, someone quips that Liberace - or "Lee" - thinks he's King Ludwig II).

Not long after they meet Scott is sharing Liberace's hot tub then his even hotter bed. Bisexual Scott is a little hesitant but Liberace attacks lovemaking as if it were Rimsky- Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumble Bee, one of the showy, rapid-fire pieces that made the pianist, according to reports, the biggest star of his day.

The fun of living large with Lee soon dissipates, beginning with Liberace demanding that Scott submit to plastic surgery to make him not just look younger but more like himself (a startlingly slit-eyed, stone-faced Rob Lowe plays the surgeon to the stars, Jack Startz, in the film's funniest performance) and to lose weight, which leads to a ruinous drug problem.

While Behind the Candelabra moves into some very dark territory and is sexually quite confronting (despite its surprising M rating) the script is one of the smartest and funniest of the year, with Thorson's memoir so beautifully polished by Richard LaGravanese it sparkles as brightly as one of Liberace's pianos.

When Scott says he feels he is too young to have plastic surgery his old friend Bob Black (Scott Bakula) replies: "Are you kidding me? In gay years you're Judy during the Sid Luft obese period."

As amusing as LaGravenese's dialogue and Soderbergh's characteristically brisk, smart direction are, Behind the Candelabra will be remembered for its two central performances - for Damon's quiet but convincing depiction of a starry-eyed youngster drawn to Liberace like a moth to a flame and, of course, for Douglas, who uses his capacity for smarm to devastating effect.

This is not a movie of great psychological depth. But in the quieter moments Douglas is able to suggest that a man who has spent his entire life putting on an act - he even wears his famously lush hairpiece to bed and publishes a biography talking about his undying love for Sonja Henie - has become a damaged soul.

And, in the end, Behind the Candelabra evolves into a surprisingly heartfelt love story, not the kind that Liberace celebrated as a performer but one that breaks through the artifice.

Behind the Candelabra is now showing.