"It was an easy and immediate yes," says HBO Programming President Michael Lombardo, who is, nevertheless, sympathetic to the constraints on his studio peers. "I can't imagine anybody passed on this happily."

Weintraub is somewhat less diplomatic: "It's great, now I sit with my feet up and people tell me, 'Geez, I wish I'd done that movie.'"

Soderbergh, never a cinematic purist, had no qualms about taking the project to the small screen — "Most of the stuff that I'm looking forward to seeing is on TV now," he says.

The film's stars are just as pleased with the outcome.

"I haven't been involved in a movie where there's been so much attention beforehand," says Douglas, sitting for a joint interview with his costar in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park, a lavish setting Liberace himself might have appreciated.

With HBO, "You don't have to defend your creative beachhead all the time," Damon says. Still, like Soderbergh, he confesses to being surprised that the film scared off so many potential investors. "I thought someone like Harvey Weinstein, who's made a career of making movies with more difficult subject matter, would have jumped at it."

Douglas admits to some "initial insecurities" about playing a real-life figure for the first time in his 40-year career, particularly given the physical differences between himself and the barrel-chested Liberace, but the role was ultimately appealing.

"I play a lot of bad guys, so I said, 'What fun to play a nice guy.' He was a real giver," says the actor, "until you crossed him."

Thorson's story

"Behind the Candelabra" hews closely to Thorson's version of events: He was a foster kid of 17 when he met Liberace and became his live-in lover and sometime employee. By any estimation, theirs was an unconventional romance: At one point "Lee," as he was known to friends, investigated the possibility of legally adopting Thorson, whose severe dieting developed into a nasty cocaine and prescription-drug addiction. (Thorson was not directly involved in the production.)

In Soderbergh's telling, Liberace is a bundle of contradictions — at once funny, generous, controlling and narcissistic — and Thorson the wide-eyed naif seduced by all the glamour.

All of which suggests the possibility that "Behind the Candelabra" was not too gay for Hollywood but, rather, the wrong kind of gay — that is, not in keeping with the wholesome, unthreatening breed of same-sex relationships popular on TV these days, in shows such as "Modern Family."

"The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile," Soderbergh says. "But it'd be the same story no matter what the gender: older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power. Add showbiz and you've got a pretty complex melange of elements."

The film, rather than dwelling on the more eccentric aspects of Liberace and Thorson's romance, delights in the mundane ones, portraying Lee and his "Baby Boy" as a loving couple prone to fighting over the same banal subjects — sex, careers, money — as many a husband and wife.

The actors chose to focus on selling the small details that made their relationship not just believable but relatable, like the familiar way they cuddle on the couch while watching television. The contrast between Liberace's domestic routine and his extravagant lifestyle is a fertile source of humor, as when he and Thorson charge through their palatial Las Vegas penthouse, arguing about their barely existent social life. "Want me to invite Charo over for brunch?" Liberace asks, as a swarm of tiny dogs yap underfoot.

"The absurdity of their relationship to me made me think, 'Well, all of our lives are absurd. We just think they matter because they matter so much to us,'" Damon says. "If you made a movie about all of our lives it, would probably seem as wonderful and tragic as this kind of story."

Heightening the comedic effect are performances from Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's manager and henchman Seymour Heller and especially Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon who gives Liberace a botched face-lift that renders him incapable of fully closing his eyelids ("This way you'll be able to see people's expressions when they see how fabulous you look!").

Filming on location in recession-era Sin City also enhanced everyone's appreciation for the absurd. "The hotel was so understaffed because I think they were bank-owned. You could get your room cleaned or you could take the 'green option' and they would give you a $5 paper token to go play the slot machines," Damon recalls with a laugh.

Given the film's high concentration of catty one-liners, rhinestone-studded G-strings and scenes set in foamy hot tubs, it's easy to imagine how, in less capable hands, "Behind the Candelabra" might have become "Showgirls" for a new generation.

The key to avoiding such a pratfall was playing it straight. Says Douglas, the savvy veteran: "You never wink at the audience."

meredith.blake@latimes.com