Was Matt Damon’s Decision to Play Michael Douglas’s Boyfriend in Liberace Movie a Risky Career Move?

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Was Matt Damon’s Decision to Play Michael Douglas’s Boyfriend in Liberace Movie a Risky Career Move?
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Matt Damon

The actor who played the widowed dad in "We Bought a Zoo" and sexy spy in "The Bourne Identity" has finally decided to let his inner diva out. Matt Damon plays Liberace's boyfriend in "Behind the Candelabra," premiering on HBO Sunday night.

The 42-year-old actor will play Scott Thorson, a former farm boy who had a secret five year romance with Liberace, played by Michael Douglas.

Though support for gay people getting married or serving in the military has mushroomed in recent years, being gay is still considered risky business in Hollywood. Actors like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have long been rumored to be gay, but they maintain they are straight and use their marriages to women as evidence.

Even portraying a gay man in the movies can threaten the macho image of an actor who wants to play a heterosexual heart throb in the future. Though actors, by definition, are pretending to be someone else, their roles often get confused with their public image. George Clooney, for instance, is famous for playing hard-to-get macho guys, which fuels his rep as one of Hollywood's hottest bachelors and vice versa.

What's makes Damon so courageous is that scenes depicting him kissing Douglas or taking a bath with him in a candlelit bathroom could become cemented in viewers and casting agents' minds, making it more difficult for him to sell himself in the future as a straight love interest. Yet he is still willing to take the risk.

Two actors who took similar gambles in the past are Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal who played gay cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain." Though Ledger has since died, Gyllenhaal's career has thrived since the controversial movie, which downplayed the homosexual theme in its marketing. The film's trailer, for instance, showed only a heterosexual love scene.

Though the edgy Western turned out to be a huge success, Hollywood was still too afraid to back the Liberace movie this year. That explains why it is on cable TV instead of the local cineplex. The film's director Steven Soderbergh told the New York Post, "We went to everybody in town. They all said it was too gay. And this is after 'Brokeback Mountain,' by the way, which is not as funny as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us."

In what may have been a tip of the hat to homophobes, the co-stars of "Behind the Candelabra" both joked about playing gay men. "The two actors made light of their love scenes, with Douglas joking about asking Damon what flavor lip balm he preferred and Damon saying he could swap stories with Sharon Stone, Glenn Close and Demi Moore after sharing a bed with Douglas," wrote a reporter for Reuters, who covered the film's first public viewing at the Cannes Film Festival Tuesday night.

As for Damon, this is not the first time the Boston native has taken a chance for a role. He played Greg Kinnear's conjoined twin in "Stuck on You" and a desert hiker in "Gerry" in which he barely spoke a word of dialogue.

The real-life devoted dad of four takes the art of acting seriously. He told ABC TV it was harder to portray the depth of feeling between his character and Liberace than deal with the risqué sex scenes or wear a jewel encrusted mankini.

"The more challenging stuff, I think, was really selling the intimacy of a relationship that's kind of a deep love affair," he told reporter Elizabeth Vargas. "That stuff was actually to me way more intimate than like, all right, I'm going to straddle you right now and like plant one on you. For exactly seven seconds, are you ready?"

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