Soderbergh has famously stated this will be his last film. If true that would be a real shame, as he seems to have saved his best work till last. This biopic of Liberace is one of his best films – arguably his best of all. It’s extremely funny without any nastiness, camp without being bitchy and ultimately a very touching piece about ageing, desire, friendship and companionship.
It also features career-defining performances from Douglas and Damon. Douglas is clearly having the time of his life as the outrageous entertainer – what a shame he can’t be nominated for an Oscar (as it premiered on HBO in the US, ruling it ineligible). It’s a spot-on performance of an ageing, absurd, ridiculous man, but the key is that Douglas’ Liberace takes himself completely seriously. A twinkle in Douglas’ eye would ruin it. What we have here is a master entertainer, a talented musician with a desire to be loved, and absolutely no self-awareness at all. He is vain, selfish and determined to have his desires fulfilled.
The object of those desires, Damon’s Scott, turns up by accident, a simple country boy with a love of animals and the love of a foster home, who falls for Liberace’s glitter. Such is the older man’s loneliness he instantly falls for Scott’s humble attitude and kindness, and the relationship begins. The warnings are there from the start though, when Scott moves in, the previous owner of the role warns him as soon as he ages Liberace will have him out on his ear.
The relationship appears to work though, as Liberace works Scott into his stage routine, and they enjoy the fruits of his fame and money. The cracks start to appear when Scott, who “loves to eat”, gets a little bigger, and Liberace sees himself on TV looking old. Plastic surgery is the answer, courtesy of Rob Lowe’s great performance as Doctor Jack. He recommends the “Californian diet” for Scott to lose weight, basically diet pills, coke and booze, and the slow spiral begins. Liberace also seems to be tiring of Scott’s physical attributes, and offers to adopt him as his son.
As with any film like this it’s the details that make or break it, and here they are spot-on. It’s a fragile relationship, based on Scott’s need of a father figure and Liberace’s constant craving for attention – it really begins when Scott remembers Liberace’s dog’s name. Also, like any couple, they argue – they have differing sex drives and tastes, and when Liberace suggests trying out different partners it can only go one way. Right through the film though is a sense that these people, ridiculous though they are, absurd though they might look, are complicated, sincere and delicate, and are always trying to do the right thing.
It was made for HBO after Soderbergh failed to get financing for it – as he says, that’s despite this being after Brokeback Mountain, and this is way funnier than that. That’s its strength and also its weakness – it sometimes looks a little made-for-TV, and the pacing in the second half is too slow. Scott’s fall from grace it protracted, and gets a little too plotty, but it does end with a strong final scene that will stay with you.
Overall verdict: It’s the season for summer blockbusters, so this is a welcome change from superheroes and robots. It’s a humane story, beautifully played and strongly written, with performances that simply stun. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Mike Martin