By Steven ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ Soderbergh. About the pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his homosexual relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Based on Thorson’s book about his affair and the jealousies that led to their acrimonious split. Thorson had started out as an animal trainer for movies. It shows Liberace getting Thorson to undergo surgery to emulate his own ordeal. It shows Liberace at his piano performances and his death from Aids.
Hollywood studios would not touch this film so it was premiered at the Cannes film festival, presumably because it’s too explicit in the way it deals with homosexuality. The big surprise for mainstream cinema is that Matt Damon and Michael Douglas have played mainstream machos (imagine Redford or Eastwood playing a pair of queens!) and here they are not only camping it up but showing the two men in an honest and direct way, though one might still offer the caveat that they might feel easier playing queens rather than ordinary people in such a relationship, after all, quite a few actors have played camp. Liberace’s stage performance makes Elton John look sedate, I’m reminded more of Andy Warhol (like him Liberace was a Catholic). It’s amazing that Liberace’s blue rinse audience appear to have been ignorant about his sexuality.
The film follows their daily life in what Liberace called “palatial kitsch”. His candour over his affluent tasteless slum does not diminish one’s visceral revulsion against its tackiness and spiritual desolation, where is the zebra skin couch? Again, one thinks of the pathos of this spiritual squalor as in Sunset Boulevard. Liberace’s keyboard talent does not extend to his awful taste in pictures or furniture. Now of course, many affluent people in the rich world emulate Liberace in the horrors of plastic surgery and manipulation, and sexual callousness in what we call oxymoronically “celebrity culture”.
Douglas as Liberace shows us the nuanced human being under the twitching camp mask that’s sometime reptilian and sometime easily wounded. The bedroom scenes are a scary mix of insecurity and paranoid jealousy. We should have expected it, but it is a shock when we learn that those Elvis-in-a-light-socket wigs covered baldness. In mainstream films we always know we’re in rich decadence when we see bathers drinking champagne in a marble jacuzzi, and so here. Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s Austrian mother, she is so unrecognizable that I thought it might be Meryl Streep doing another elderly lady impersonation. The various businessmen and lawyers are shysters in mutton chop whiskers and flared trousers, and they all look like wretched scavengers. Great Performances.