Michael Douglas didn’t have to do it. His sterling career had already garnered him worldwide fame, fortune, countless awards, two Oscars, an AFI Life Achievement Award and the respect of critics and audiences alike for over 40 years. He had just battled throat cancer and licked it, and could’ve laid low for a year or two. And yet, Douglas chose to jump back into the game with both feet essaying Liberace in HBO’s TV movie BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. It was easily one the most challenging roles of his career. And at 68 years of age, Douglas aced it. He proved again that he is one amazing talent, and a courageous one too. And he blew everyone’s socks off.
It was not only brave to take on such a difficult role immediately after his recovery from a life-threatening illness, but incredibly gutsy to take on a role that in many ways was a risky stretch. Douglas’ career has been built mostly by playing relatable ‘everyman’ roles, the kind of roles that audiences can easily empathize with. Who couldn’t understand a harried professional fighting office politics in DISCLOSURE? What regular Joe hasn’t felt betrayed by 'the man' like the character Douglas played in FALLING DOWN? And a mid-life crisis? Heck, that sort of thing has been Douglas’ stock and trade many, many times (WONDER BOYS, FATAL ATTRACTION).
|Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA.|
On the surface, the role of flamboyant homosexual Liberace would seem to have nothing in common with such ‘regular’ guys. And in many ways, that’s true. But Douglas found the relatability, even in such a larger-than-life character. For starters, Douglas didn’t play the role ‘big’. He never resorted to caricature. He didn’t do a Rich Little impression of Liberace’s whispery voice. And he didn’t overdo the feminine mannerisms. Instead, he found the everyman in the showman, the aging man fighting to stay relevant. And both he and Matt Damon as Liberace's lover Scott Thorson made the gay couple seem a lot like most arguing, old married couples we know.
Douglas also captured the pain of Liberace’s knowledge that despite having so much, he really had so little. He has often done that in the rich men roles he’s taken. He makes the 1% relatable to the rest of us in the 99%. He’s played many successful men, trying and failing to keep it together. He was the politician struggling to keep his child off drugs in TRAFFIC. He played the Broadway director who can’t balance his personal life with his professional one in A CHORUS LINE. And he even made THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT into a worry wart fretting over how he'll do in bed with Annette Bening. (Live up to Warren Beatty? Who wouldn't sweat that one?!) Douglas’s characters may be the elite, but they’re always just two stained shirts away from losing it all (THE GAME). And that’s Liberace too. He may have had the most successful show in Vegas, but he knew so much of it was hollow and unfulfilling.
|Michael Douglas and Annette Bening in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT.|
Director/producer Steven Soderbergh knew Douglas would get that about Liberace. A man who’s known life in the shadows of a famous father (Kirk Douglas) would understand how Liberace lived life in the closet. And Douglas would get the whole age thing as a man who’s made the transition from leading man to character parts. And certainly Douglas recognizes that money and fame can't ensure happiness. (Who in Hollywood doesn’t understand that?)
Towards the end of the movie, as Liberace is dying of AIDS, he summons his spurned lover Scott to his bedside. He can no longer hide behind his riches. He’s ravaged, wane, and even wigless. And yet it’s perhaps the first time Scott has seen Liberace honestly, with no artifice, no wit to cover his hurt, and no fronts or walls up to keep people at bay. And Douglas breaks your heart in that scene because he is so expert at playing such raw vulnerability. And now having gotten old and lived through cancer, there is nothing but bold frankness in Douglas, in his work and in the exciting roles he's taking.
|Michael Douglas in THE GAME.|
Douglas is always superb at conveying how veneers crack and fall away in his privileged characters. Think of his Gordon Gekko wailing at the end of WALL STREET while his airplane stock goes in the toilet; or his Oliver Rose still wanting to be loved, reaching for his wife’s hand as they die at the end of THE WAR OF THE ROSES; or his SOLITARY MAN pining for some sort of connection in his twilight years. And now, Douglas has mined that rich vein again, this time in the anguish of the forlorn Liberace. It was stunning work. And it’s going to add more awards to Douglas’ already full room of them.
Michael Douglas could’ve rested on his laurels. He had nothing left to prove, and no one who needed to be impressed. But we all were, stunningly so, by what he did in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. I hope Douglas remains healthy and lives another 20 years. And I can’t wait to see what other risks he’ll take. My socks are ready.