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The Globe and Mail

Douglas and Liberace: A match made in actor heaven

"Fourteen Actors Acting," a recent New York Times Magazine "video gallery" shot by famed Norwegian fashion photographer Solve Sundsbo, is a series of black and white shorts featuring stars "striking some of the classic attitudes of cinema."

The collision of silent, lurid drama against the often violently emotional score by Canadian indie composer Owen Pallett is fascinating, and the performances are good enough - if occasionally grossly excessive.

One performance is so perfectly wrought, so painful in its restraint, that it makes everyone else look bad (imagine Laurence Olivier playing a gentleman caller on The Golden Girls). It is the work of Michael Douglas, who has filmed the short as he recovers from a debilitating round of radiation treatment and chemotherapy for stage 4 throat cancer.

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As the other actors exert actual fury and summon Norma Desmond, Douglas sits still in a leather chair and stares, one hand outstretched as if holding a cigarette.

His eyes cloud with a fast succession of emotions; his hand contracts; he faces the viewer.

This moment is wrenching: In his black eyes is the private story of his life-threatening illness; there is the story too, of Douglas's illness having been made so luridly public. The eyes challenge us, watchful, wary of being watched.

Before and after his treatment, the actor has been working very hard. He bagged two films ( Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Solitary Man) and is preparing to begin a new one, a biopic of the legendary Liberace.

The film will be directed by Steven Soderbergh and will also star Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, the pianist's litigious companion who both outed Liberace and invented the concept of "palimony."

Douglas is excited about the project and has remarked on Liberace's decency and kindness as a point of interest and an entry to what was behind Mr. Showmanship's glittery façade.

Recent stories about The Solitary Man have noted that the protagonist of the film, who is sick, ineluctably reminds viewers of the actor's disease.

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Douglas has said he did not know he had cancer while filming, but the role has made him "darkly chuckle" many times since.

Will he feel the same way, trying to capture the life and tragic death of Wladziu Valentino Liberace?

On the surface, Douglas is an odd choice for the role.

It is hard to imagine the plain-clothes actor and chronic tough guy, say, promenading in a fox-fur coat with a bridal train or flying over a sparkling stage in a red cape. Or is it?

A closer look at Liberace, making risqué banter with his Vegas audience or accepting baked goods from his swooning TV audience, reveals a man of captivating power and sweetness, potent qualities shared by Douglas - think of his disarming smile in the Wall Street films, one that unsettles the idea of the otherwise ruthless warrior.

More critically, both men presented a radical version of male sexuality to the world in their work.

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Liberace, a self-described "walking Disneyland," was sparkle and glitter and bubbles and flash, but he was sexual ("I always feel horny when I do that," he said in one show, as he slipped off a shiny item) and major eye candy for women of a certain age. In no way feminine, the "King of Bling" merely appropriated traditionally female glamour and changed it, paving the way for show-stopping drag queens, rock stars and gangsters.

And Douglas? In his erotic thrillers Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), he showed us conflicted men, men intent on tearing down the wall that divides straight and queer, kink and vanilla, sex and violence.

His characters dressed in pointedly anti-glam beiges and browns: Douglas was the era's human chameleon, whose boyish charm, like Liberace's, belied a turbulent erotic mind, a passion for excess and artifice (think of Glenn Close's epicene character, Alex, in Fatal Attraction, who specializes in fellatio; of Sharon Stone's bisexual psychopath, the scariest top in film history).

Douglas is still exploring roles that question limits: Now, these limits are his own.

Liberace bravely withstood wanton homophobia and was hounded to his death (in the manner of his namesake, the so-called "cream puff" Valentino) and disgraced posthumously. (His Hollywood mansion stood unsold for long after the artist's 1987 death for fear of AIDS contamination.)

Douglas too is now staring down the filthiest of the tabloid journalists determined to hurt him and his family, with morbid tales of his imminent death and cruel photographs taken during his treatments.

This fall, Liberace's Las Vegas museum closed due to low traffic and interest.

It will be a very happy ending indeed when one of Hollywood's most intriguing and vital actors draws our attention back to the beautiful, melancholy genius who so defiantly demonstrated his ability to, under adversity and against belief, take soaring flight.

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