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Thursday, July 4, 2013
This film about the last decade of Liberace’s life has two dynamite, sure-fire comic ideas going for it. The first is the notion of Michael Douglas playing Liberace.
After Basic Instinct and his pioneering role in gaining medical and social acceptance for sex addiction, Douglas is practically the spirit level by which heterosexuality is measured by.
Seeing him decked out in diamond-encrusted fur robes, playing kitsch versions of classical standards on a glittering beige grand piano for an audience of middle-aged ladies in Vegas, is inherently hilarious. It’s like Jim Davidson in The Bobby Crush Story.
The second great, but troublesome, comic idea is Liberace himself. Anyone under the age of 30 is surely not going to be able to comprehend how an extravagantly camp piano player, who resembled Grandpa Munster, could have been the world’s highest paid showbiz performer and believed to be heterosexual by at least half the world’s population.
Even if you are old enough to remember (my gran loved him), it still seems almost like a myth. These days I doubt he’d make it through the auditions of Britain’s Got Talent.
With all that going for it, the movie practically makes itself and Soderbergh’s latest last-film-I’m-ever-going-to-make (Side Effects in March was his last movie proper but this is actually an HBO TV movie) is consistently hilarious and just a little poignant. The writing is a little clunky at times with lots of dialogue scenes that crudely wedge in reams of biographical information but the performers make it worthwhile.
Despite all the wigs and make-up, Douglas doesn’t look too much like the real man – this would have been a great role for Bob Monkhouse – but it is still an extraordinary feat. He’s matched by Damon as Scott Thorsen, the innocent young hunk he takes on as lover and chauffeur. Matt Damon basically plays him as Mark Wahlberg in a Partridge Family wig.
I have a very low tolerance for camp but I found this film constantly entertaining. I laughed a lot but my merriment was mild compared to some.
At the screening I attended, it was accompanied by consistent roars of laughter; derisive aggressive laughter, reminiscent of the smug metropolitan audience laughter you sometimes get for Mike Leigh films about the working class.
The film is affectionate but it sets up Liberace as a pathetic figure, the last and most foolish representatives of the generation that had to hide their love away. I wonder if having an icon of heterosexuality play the role inadvertently gives audience license to release some deep seated hostilities.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (15)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula and Debbie Reynolds
Length: 118 mins