Last night I went to the cinema to see ‘Behind the Candelabra’, the new Liberace bio-pic based on the memoirs of his one-time boyfriend, Scott Thorson.
The film was preceded by various commercials, one of which was for a fantastic new Jaguar Sports Car (‘He had the biggest, the fastest, the reddest sports car…’) and another was a long advert for Army Recruitment featuring the ordeals of a squaddie’s boots. It seems odd to schedule these adverts in a screening of this camp masterpiece; or perhaps the airtime before this movie was heavily discounted and the marketers couldn’t say no.
A few years back I went to see ‘Some Like it Hot’ at the Metro cinema in Derby, and before the film itself they showed some items from 1959; one of these was the Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry Cartoon, and another was a public info film about learning to ride motorbikes. This had been shot in a school playground in Birmingham, and featured a group of housewives in raincoats and headscarves riding mopeds, watched by a man in a white coat with a clipboard.
Maybe the Liberace trailers should have included some contemporary TV or cinema adverts; it would be fascinating to see the clothes, and the cars, and the hairstyles. If you could see through the fog of tobacco smoke of course; the people on screen and the audience members were all allowed to smoke, so the shafts of light coming from the projector room were acutely visible.
Anyway, going Behind the Candelabra, we were treated to a perfectly straightforward story of boy-meets-man; except that in this case the man was rich and famous and was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted. The film was made by HBO, and occasionally the structure of the narrative gives away the fact that it’s not a Hollywood studio production. But if one of the big studios had decided to make this movie it would have taken three times as long and cost five times as much, and probably not been quite as entertaining. Hollywood films are very good; they kindly add music to remind you of what the appropriate emotional response should be at any given time. But here, Soderbergh allows us to hear the characters arguing without telling us what to feel.
There are some wonderful lines in the script (“Ludwig the Second – he was the Liberace of Bavaria”, “I can take a cheque”) and Michael Douglas gives a tremendous performance as the charming predator. Some people have criticised the movie for casting Matt Damon as a teenager, but the only way to make this story work was to have two heavyweight lead actors. It’s not the story of Liberace – this is the story of a particular relationship towards the end of his life, and it will be interesting to read in future about how the movie departs from the truth…if we can ever know what the truth was.
However, Jonathan Romney, writing in the Independent, recounts incorrectly the plastic surgery undergone by Thorson to make him resemble the younger Liberace. Romney says: ‘Scott is modified, the Liberace dimple inserted in his chin, and his features become a pumped-up non-specific blur of a face.’ But it is made clear that Lee had no dimple, and this could be a subtle in-joke about a young man actually wanting to look like Kirk Douglas.
Last might I found myself watching Liberace on YouTube, some elderly footage from the fifties. Not a rhinestone or ostrich feather in sight; instead, we had a pleasant young(ish) man in black jacket and white tie seated at the piano. He seemed keen only to reassure his viewers that the classical repertoire wasn’t stuffy or forbidding, but instead was a catalogue of irresistible tunes which had inspired songwriters ever since.
As well as an unseen orchestra. Lee was accompanied by two soloists, on flute and guitar, and he made no attempt to hog the limelight when it was their turn to perform. A far cry from the vaudeville monster portrayed by Michael Douglas in his recent film….