Steven Soderbergh had been wanting to direct a Liberace biopic for some time; according to Wikipedia, he’d been in talks with Michael Douglas for thirteen years to have the actor star in the role. But getting finance for a film based on the life of a man who was described, in his lifetime, as a “luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love” was no small feat. There was also a question of how to approach the material – Soderbergh, apparently, wanted to avoid the traditional cradle-to-the-grave narrative. But eventually financing was secured and an approach was settled on – this would not be a biography of Liberace, but of his relationship with his chauffeur, secretary and lover, Scott Thorston (Matt Damon).
It’s an unlikely film, and the results are mixed. The good? Michael Douglas delivers a fucking triumphant performance as Walter “Lee” Liberace. Through him we get a leery seducer, a hard-working entertainer, a lonely millionaire, a black-lit gremlin, and a dignified superstar at the height of his powers. Liberace, the man, was always a glamorous character – Michael gives us that, as well as the human behind the act. Meanwhile Rob Lowe, playing Liberace’s cosmetic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz, is a glorious lizard king. I mean, look at him. Just look at him.
The bad? Scott Thorston’s character arc. When we meet him he’s the level-headed kid from middle America, cautious of Liberace’s advances and alarmed by the “palatial kitsch” decor. Almost immediately he emerges as an Eddie Izard in diamante speedos, demanding his Fresca with his panini, the transition to fabulous mostly happening off-screen. It’s a development that rings a little false, and serves to distance Liberace’s opulence from the climate of the times. How did this “big ole queen” become the darling of an America that was so hostile to his lifestyle? The movie offers us few clues. But for all that, this is a unique and darkly hilarious film, and one of the more intriguing Hollywood comedies of late worth catching up with.