Michael Douglas took on an enormously tough assignment when accepting the part of Liberace. How do you portray a larger-than-life celebrity whose career was built on excess without giving the impression that you are acting over the top? He succeeds admirably, managing to be as camp as a row of tents without resorting at any point to a limp wrist. Matt Damon as Scott, his live-in lover of six years, brings to the character his usual woodchuck earnestness, but he too, miraculously boyish-looking in the early stages, is totally convincing, particularly when the men have their spats.
What is hardest to get your head around – remembering that it was as recent as 1987 that Liberace died from complications arising from the AIDS virus, but that society’s mores have moved on rapidly since the famous piano player was at his peak – is that any of his doting fans could for one minute have believed that Liberace was not gay. His manager worked tirelessly to convince people that he was merely an eccentric dresser who had not yet found the right woman. As elephants in the room go, it’s as strange as a shock-jock radio bully hiding his closet-dwelling homosexuality from his numbskull listeners. Whatever – this is an extremely easy movie to be drawn into, thanks entirely to the performances and lavish art direction, but it has a curious emptiness. Hardly anything happens.
Scott, a pretty face from Wisconsin, is introduced to Lee, Lee has him move into his Las Vegas palazzo and they share a relationship that is in the beginning passionate, then merely intimate and ultimately, as Scott falls into drug addiction, destructive.
Director Steven Soderbergh is sympathetic to both of his subjects without delving very deeply into what shaped their personalities. Liberace might as easily have been a baseballer for any emphasis that is placed on his music, but maybe he was really like that – just all bling. Rob Lowe’s reptilian plastic surgeon will make your blood run cold.