dir: Steven Soderbergh
I never thought a biopic about Liberace would turn out to be one of the best flicks of the year. I can't imagine that anyone thought a flick about Liberace could be one of the best flicks of any year.
I don't think even Liberace would have predicted it, but, based on the character here, he probably would have felt entitled to it all the same.
I mean, how many people even remember him?
People of a certain age, I guess. If you were old enough to see him on the telly, and his twinkly smile, and the countless references / mentions of him in a pop cultural sense that seemed to pop up all over the place in the late 1970 / early 80s, then he would still come as something of a revelation to you, as played by Michael Douglas.
Did you know, for example, that Liberace was gay?
I know, I know, it shocked me too. Apparently, a lot of people, including perhaps some of the guys Liberace was having sex with, didn't realise he was gay.
This virtuoso pianist who wore extravagant mink coats and costumes dripping with jewels, from what this film says, turns out not to be the paragon of heterosexual conformity that he portrayed himself as being.
It's deceptive of me to say this is a biopic of Liberace's life, since it's really the story of one of Liberace's lovers and eventual domestic partners (is that even the right terminology for those unenlightened times?), Scott Thorson. Scott Thorson apparently met Liberace when Scott was in his early 20s and Liberace was in his, let's just say well-preserved 50s.
But I don't know about that story. I haven't read Scott's book. All I know is the story I've seen in this film, and I'm sure it probably varies significantly from the 'true story', even if the screenplay was based on the book.
This here is a totally fascinating story, all the same. Scott (played by Matt Damon, aided by CGI in the early bits to help him look like a young twink when the actor playing him is in his mid-forties) is taken to a performance of Liberace's, and is astounded by what a great pianist he is. Liberace is at the peak of his powers, playing to packed houses, wallowing in wealth and decking out his mansions in a style that even Colombian drug lords would find gaudy.
Scott approaches Liberace with a certain amount of awe, and apparently, like the rest of the world, doesn't know that Liberace is gay. On the other hand, now that I think about it, the 'friend' he made in the opening scene (played by Scott Bakula, looking like Sam Eliot) seems like he's serving Scott up to Liberace on a platter. Liberace is a star, and a lot of people profit from him, thus supplying him with young lovers is probably a perquisite of being Liberace.
Nervous, naive but not unintelligent, Scott seems to enter into a relationship with Liberace, who insists on being called Lee, with his eyes open. Those eyes are dazzled, though, by both the opulence that surrounds Lee and the personality of this gifted, strange man. Michael Douglas doesn't so much do an imitation of Liberace as just embody someone completely different from any other character he’s ever played on screen, who bears a disturbing and uncanny similarity to a strange but charming chap called Liberace.
Their relationship is very much sexual at first, and they spend an inordinate amount of time together in this film sipping champagne in the bubble bath, but there is a clear sense of it being a transactional relationship as well. Every expression of love or adoration is accompanied with references to money, to jewellery, to giving Scott what he wants, or at least what Lee thinks will keep him close and loyal.
First, Scott has to see off his rivals, though. Liberace has a protégé, Billy Leatherwood (Cheyenne Jackson), who also tickles the ivories, but who rolls his eyes heavenward as he listens to Lee complimenting Scott. We get the clear impression that Billy himself was in the position Scott now finds himself in, and that he knows how inevitable the cycle of replacement will be. Perhaps, as he sarcastically cuts into his steak and gurns in the background, he knows like we do that Scott will inevitably be replaced as well.
No-one really in that position thinks they’re only a comma in the sentence of someone else’s life. We like to think we’re the full stop, or at least an exclamation point. So Scott gets into this relationship as the sweet young thing at the disposal of a choosy monarch.
This brings up even more interesting questions about their dynamic. Sex isn’t elided in the onscreen depiction, though neither is it emphasised, at least the visual depiction thereof. Far more important is the conversations they have about their sex life, and what it reveals about both of them.
Liberace himself is, to put it as delicately and poetically as I can, an incredibly highly-sexed goat of a man, but Scott, who identifies at least partially as bi, seems not to be as completely out of the closet as his lifestyle and choices would imply. He still seems afraid of being found out, of being known as gay, and, I’m not joking about this, almost seems a little homophobic. His aversion to certain practices are fine from a personal perspective, in that people should do whatever they want to do and not do what they don’t want to do, but the reasons he gives for his rejection of them are illuminating.
A lot of the flick is spent in conversation between the two, and a lot of it is Liberace telling us about himself and about his past. These are the parts of the flick that most resemble the traditional biopic, but they don’t detract from the storytelling at all.
As Liberace tells us about a brush with death, Douglas’s calm, measured telling of the tale was really quite moving, not because of the hallucinations about white-clad nuns and such, but because he’s telling a story that he fervently believes gives him the cover to believe that he could reconcile his Catholic faith (!) and the Church’s hatred of our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters with his sexual shenanigans. The upshot? Liberace understood that at least Jesus accepted him as he is, regardless of what the godbotherers might say.
Up until now, you’d think that I was describing a sweet and affirming story about a May-December romance between two loving men, but the story takes what I would simplistically call a dark turn when it really gets into the nitty-gritty of Liberace’s psychology. The relationship between the two men has all sorts of other undercurrents that defy simplistic enunciation in a review like this, but let me just say that what Liberace was looking for in Scott, and what Scott was looking for in Liberace, isn’t what you assume two guys are looking for.
The twisted travails of what Liberace is pursuing is never better exemplified by their joint trips to Dr Startz, played by an unfeasibly frightening Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon who seems to be his own best customer. Liberace’s looking for a renovation, but what he wants to do to Scott is nothing short of transformative, as in, the intention to turn him into someone completely different.
My partner, who saw this film with me, almost involuntarily lamented out loud, “How could he ruin Matt Damon?”, and that’s ultimately the effect that was intended, in the sense that Matt Damon goes from looking like an 80s version of himself mixed with Dirk Diggler, into looking like a melding of Liberace and the Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s the thinking behind getting him to do it, shaping him like that, that is more disturbing, or at least discomfiting, than what it does to his appearance, because Scott isn’t forced into it at all, and has his own curious moment of sticking up for himself. The surgery, and the trips to Dr Startz, leads to drugs for Scott, and there are inevitabilities coming down for all the characters concerned. It’s sad, as well, but it leads to a fantastical ending that couldn’t have been more perfect for these strange characters.
There’s no doubting that the film is anchored by the great performances, obviously of Douglas, who really embodies this strange creature and brings him to life as far more than just a caricature. Damon has the less showy role, but he grounds the film by making his character seem like a genuine person who knew and didn’t know what he was getting into.
The thing is, we don’t know Scott Thorson. We know of Liberace, though, and the great thing Douglas does with his voice is what really captures the character for us, enough to charm us and to allow us to forgive what is some truly selfish, monstrously narcissistic, callous behaviour, especially when we and Scott start to see signs that Liberace is planning to move on.
It’s not heartbreaking for us, because we know Scott would have to be better off far away from this strange dynamic and definitely off the coke that he becomes addicted to (if there’s one sound I truly hate it’s the constant sniffing back of a coke user, and Scott does an obscene amount of blow, paid for with jewellery, since he never has money of his own). Where the story will end is not going to be a surprise to anyone old enough to remember the times, but I can’t say that I was, being but a child at the time. Let’s just say that it’s a terrible ending for someone who deserved better, and a hopeful ending for someone who at least got the chance to move on.
As a movie, regardless of whether it was made for the big screen or the tv screen, it was quite touching, immaculately well made, tremendously well acted, emotionally complex and probably the least likely flick I’ve seen that amazed me with how well it could tell its story. A strange triumph for all concerned.
9 times I wondered while watching Liberace whether all the rappers and hip-hop artists these days dripping in jewellery and luxury items are deliberately or unwittingly imitating Liberace out of 10
“I have an eye for new and refreshing talent.”
- You have an eye for new and refreshing dick.” – the two things are not mutually exclusive – Behind the Candelabra