“There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know.”- Noël Coward
If this year has taught me anything it’s that sometimes exhaustive life stories aren’t the way to go with biopics. Lincoln proved to be one of Spielberg’s finest achievements, managing to encapsulate the Great Emancipator’s mystique and awe in a film covering just the last couple of months of his life. Hitchcock, which followed the Master of Suspense’s time making Psycho was a bit too fanciful for anyone actually in the know but not uninteresting. An even better film about Hitch was The Girl, an account of Tippi Hedren’s experience making of The Birds and Marnie with Hitchcock, which was produced for television by HBO a couple of months earlier.
With Behind the Candelabra HBO have scored another bull’s eye, a distillation of the last ten years or so of Liberace’s life, focusing on his relationship and subsequent acrimonious breakup with Scott Thorson, on whose memoir it’s based. Although released theatrically here, the film was produced for TV in America after being deemed ‘too gay’ to secure funding from any major film studio. Which is a shame since it covers very similar ground to J. Edgar which did get a major US cinema release, but is commendably more upfront about its sexual subject matter than Clint Eastwood’s FBI Director biopic.
Ostensibly the main character, Scott (Matt Damon sporting some lovely Farrah Fawcett locks) is really the prism through which we more clearly understand Liberace’s bizarre ermine-trimmed world. Liberace (Michael Douglas), Lee to his friends, was a pianist and showman extraordinaire, as well as a vain hypocritical closet case. The last part wasn’t known to the general public during his lifetime. Sort of like a cross betwixt Elton John and Lady Gaga, to modern audiences the camp as Christmas Liberace must seem a strange idol for the conservative blue rinse brigade that made up his fanbase from the 1940s to the 1980s. And yet he maintained to his death bed he just hadn’t met the right girl. Had his fans known he was gay, his career would have been over and yet it was plainly obvious. Perhaps they just chose to accept his claims at face value and ignore the purple, diamond studded elephant in the room. Blatantly hypocritical sure, but they weren’t alone in it.
Liberace seemed content to lie to himself and others in order to reconcile the disparate parts of his life whether it was his devout religious faith vs. his sex life or asking for an open relationship only to grow jealous and controlling when Scott spoke to even platonic friends, while Lee cruised back rooms at adult stores. Out of all of this it would have been easy to make him a monster but Michael Douglas in one of his best performances finds a pitiable man beneath the furs and toupée, whose wealth and image have so insulated him from reality he doesn’t know who he can trust or who likes him for himself, and in return buys affection because it’s the only way he can control it. For all his selfishness and cruelty his final scene bedridden, in pain and frightened that he’ll only be remembered as “some queen who died of AIDS” is heartbreaking. Death be not proud.
It’s fascinating that in a career with more verisimilitude than one would think at first (a countdown of Michael Douglas’ best roles would surely make a deserving future column), Douglas takes the persona probably most associated with him from roles in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, or Disclosure, that of a slimy older lech and simply turns the attention from younger women to younger men, and it fits like a glove. Matt Damon although at 42 is too old to be playing a 17 year old, nevertheless manages to brings a real sincerity to a difficult role that requires him to mostly listen and react. It’s as the film progresses that he develops more as a character and starts fighting back against his demanding benefactor, ironically coming into his own when he realises he no longer even has his own face thanks to plastic surgery. It goes without saying, the surgery makeup aside, Matt Damon has still got it. And thankfully the film isn’t shy about showing it.
Many biopics play up the gulf between public persona and private life, with Liberace his sexuality and a nasty streak aside, there was really little difference. He lived just as extravagantly as he performed on stage and acted in much the same way. This is really where the film succeeds in exploring his character through small touches and asides. Some of the major events of his life are conveyed through anecdotes to Scott such as his successful libel suit against a British tabloid for calling him homosexual or his near death experience from renal failure, in the same offhand manner in which he’d chat to his audience. Whether it’s all true to life isn’t important (the truth never bothered him too much), it establishes his world in a way that’s true to the spirit of it and crucially, it’s very entertaining. Rob Lowe’s appearance as his personal plastic surgeon whose own face is so stretched he’d give Joan Rivers nightmares is a hilariously grotesque highlight, the epitome of a lifestyle of frivolity, wealth and excess. The real guy looked like this.