Steven Soderbergh is in an odd position when it comes to his supposedly last film ever. After American film studios chose not to fund a no-holds-barred look at Liberace’s private life just in case it came across as a bit too gay, it became necessary for HBO to step in to back the adaptation of Scott Thorson’s account of his five year relationship with the superstar pianist. Therefore, we are in the odd position of this potentially being Soderbergh’s last film outside the US only. It also means that neither its director nor its stars will have any chance to receive Oscar nominations for their work here.
The film picks up in 1977 where, thanks to a random hook-up with a very 70s Scott Bakula, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of women at one of Liberace’s Vegas shows. Finding himself backstage with the legend, the animal handler and wannabe vet offers his services in caring for the pianists much loved dog and ends up becoming his live-in companion complete with bejewelled chauffeur outfit.
This may be a look behind Liberace’s candelabra, but there is no denying who the stand-out star really is. Damon gives a superb performance as Liberace’s young lover, despite being well over 20 years older than Scott really was at the time. Some amount of technical wizardry and make-up has taken place to make Damon seem younger than his actual 42 years, but nobody is able to truly turn back the clock. Of course, the lack of realism has little effect on the overall might of the performance and Damon once again proves how much better he is than the Jason Bourne films suggest. The actor plays Scott as fairly passive and it feels as though the slightly naïve youth is simply swept along on a wave of adoration, celebrity and wealth. Although there are hints of a real affection and admiration for the pianist and is captivated by his presence from his first glimpse.
And it’s easy to see why, thanks to Michael Douglas’s sensational job of bringing Liberace to life. There is no doubt that Douglas is a talented actor, but if he hadn’t embraced the chance to glide around a stage this whole thing would never have come together. He has such confidence in his own sexuality and performance that there is no awkwardness from the fact that a very heterosexual actor is playing a very homosexual star. Douglas portrays Liberace as someone who is aware of all of the facts. The performance is slightly tongue-in-cheek and you get the sense that the actor is much more embracive of the ridiculousness of the situation than Liberace ever could have been. He has to accept the façade because of the role, but that doesn’t mean he has to believe it.
It is during our first glimpse of the great man that we get the greatest sense of the extent to which Lee and his audience were engaged in their mutual delusion. The figure we see floating around the stage covered in jewellery, sequins and fur is so incredibly at odds with the accepted image of the womaniser with his gaggle of lust-filled female fans. Everyone, even his own mother (played by an almost unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds), buys into the lie because, as Lee himself explains, “people only see what they want to see”. Just as the film’s audience will only see what they want to see. Watching Douglas in performance mode you know deep down that there is no way the actor is responsible for the technical wizardry on show, but watching everything unfold before your eyes you’ll happily give him the credit for the double-time boogie-woogie. Douglas isn’t just playing Liberace he is Liberace. You can certainly see why Scott becomes so enamoured quite so quickly. The film’s opening section leaves you in no doubt that the man had endless talent and a great sense of showmanship.
Such a great showman that Liberace managed to hide a bucket-load of neurosis and personal pain. The pairing works because they each receive something vital from the other. When they first meet, Scott tells Liberace that he was orphaned as a child and moved between foster homes. It is his fear of abandonment and lack of strong fatherly presence that drives the young man to accepting the offer: within Liberace he has found someone to love, protect and teach him. On the other hand, Lee is drawn to younger men so he can cling to the youth that he still can’t accept that he has lost. With every year that passes Scott becomes less interesting and the star’s wandering eye finds itself focusing in on potential replacements. It is a romance that is doomed from the start and we see a glimpse of Scott’s future in the shape of the pianist’s former squeeze, his duet partner Billy Leatherwood. All of Lee’s boys outlive their welcome. It is just a case of making the every year count.
It is after seeing footage of himself on television that Liberace gets slapped in the face by his ever-advancing years. Hoping to cling to his youth for a little longer Lee embarks on a series of intense plastic surgery at the hands of his delightfully grotesque surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, played by an unrestrained and fantastically funny Rob Lowe. Deciding that Scott has grown too comfortable with his new life of luxury, Lee pays for another deluge of surgery to turn the young man into a replica of the young pianist. (Amateur psychologists eat your fucking heart out with that one.) Startz gets Thornson hooked on a regimen of prescription drugs leading to his further decent into the murky waters of addiction.
The naïve Scott grows more aware of his lover’s lessening affection and instead turns to his drug dealer to provide him with the means to ignore it. We see Damon go from innocent young country bumpkin to a broken, world-weary man. When Scott finally comes to realise that he is just like the boys who have gone before him there is a wonderful glimmer of humiliation, anger and self-hatred in his face. We all knew this relationship was damaging and would end in an inevitably bleak manner, but that doesn’t stop Damon allowing the audience to feel sorry for him. It would have been easy to overplay both of the men, but these two stars have more than enough talent and restraint to give this film the extra layers it needed to prevent a horrible fall into celebrity soap opera.
In fact, there is a great sense of old school Hollywood beneath all of the gaudy visuals, sex, drug use and gory close-up scenes of plastic surgery. Soderbergh’s film has been put together with great care and every scene feels as well designed and detailed as Liberace’s public image. This film knows what it’s trying to say about its characters and presents its vision with such confidence that you simply get swept along with the story. The camera work is simple, but effective: we are treated to a mixture of graceful long shots, locked-down close-ups for more intimate moments, and a small amount of shaky cam to aid Scott’s descent into booze, diet pills, and coke. Thanks to Soderbergh’s immense skills as a filmmaker (taking his usual additional roles as DOP and editor here) and a remarkable script from Richard La Gravenese, a trashy tell-all book has become something sensational. It is funny, dramatic, heartbreaking and heart-warming all at once. If this truly is Soderbergh’s last work than the film industry is losing a titan and will no doubt be worse off for it.