I knew precious little about Liberace before I saw this film, and I’m not going to claim to be a genius on the topic after seeing this film either. What I will claim to be a little bit more knowledgeable about is a relationship presented here, a relationship that’s funny, true to life, and ultimately very emotive. It’s one of those rare movie relationships that actually gets it right -this is testament to the acting on display here. Matt Damon and Michael Douglas utterly, utterly convince as the couple at the centre of this film.
It tells the story of the tempestuous relationship between Damon’s Scott Thorson and Douglas’ Liberace, which occurred over a period of six years between 1977 and 1983. The two aren’t exactly a typical pair; Liberace is pushing 60 when he meets Scott, and Scott is shown as being mid to late 20s (although in real life he was about ten years younger than that). They initially meet through a mutual friend, then Liberace pursues Scott who claims to have something to fix his dog’s eyes, and before long Liberace is confiding deeply to Scott, a connection is struck, the relationship is born.
Despite the age gap, we always believe that this is a couple who truly care for each other. There’s a moment early on in the film where Liberace’s houseboy Carlucci tells Scott, in no uncertain terms, that he is just another in a long line of Liberace’s flights of fancy -Liberace responds by firing Carlucci. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that these two people are not just a fling, and the extent to which these two people are a genuine couple is the centre of the film.
Douglas is excellent as Liberace, playing with uncertainty, vanity and insecurity and yet somehow making him a warm, likable character (demonstrated perfectly in the scene where he asks Scott to get plastic surgery to look more like him, a creepy request the kind which would normally be profoundly offputting but instead has the result of us looking on, fascinated).
Damon as Scott is excellent, and we always feel like we completely understand why he likes Liberace, despite the age gap, and what the relationship means to him. Together, they complement each other perfectly, and combined with the personal script (we see the pair take baths together, sleep together, have sex together and so on), we fully realise the arc of their relationship -one bought together through some kind of deep understanding, and torn apart by the simple fact of their own flaws. It’s the stuff of tragedy.
The film also mines an excellent trove of occasional, yet deserved comedy; Rob Lowe’s plastic surgeon is a sinister yet hilarious creation that acts as the embodiment of the darker side of the hedonistic lifestyle, and the script is careful in throwing a few well-placed zingers our way (‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery At least that’s what they tell drag queens at birth.’)
The film itself is unfussy, director Steven Soderbergh (under his usual alias as cinematographer, Peter Andrews) tells the story with minimalist camerawork and a largely unmoving camera that threatens to reveal the made for TV origins of this film, but ends up allowing us an unflinching insight into the characters that becomes the key to the film’s success. The score is similarly un-intrusive, with composer Marvin Hamlisch getting the occasional piano pieces from Liberace spot on. All this would normally have the effect of making the film cold, observational, distant, but in this case we are thrown into such a clear-eyed vision of this relationship, that by the end we deeply, deeply care, and are left, above all, touched.
It may not change the world, but if you care about the ways in which humans can act towards each other, this is a film you owe it to yourself to see; a small film, a dialogue-and-performance driven expose of a relationship that maintains its tenets of truth, honesty and warmth through to the very final frame.