"Too gay." That’s what the big Hollywood studios said. What? A movie about macho Vegas legend Liberace and his relationship with the young, blond beefcake he lived with for five years? Gay? How very dare they.
Still, their loss was the American cable TV subscribers’ gain as Steven Soderbergh’s much-vaunted "last" directing job (and if you believe that, you’ll still believe Liberace was straight) was funded by HBO and thus premiered on the small screen in the US.
But with Soderbergh enjoying his final fling with his globally box office-friendly buddies Michael "Traffic" Douglas and Matt "Ocean’s Several" Damon, there was no way this bling-laden biopic was going to bypass the rest of the world’s cinemas.
Theatre audiences are duly rewarded with an eye-catching spectacle; not just from the material extravagances that defined Liberace (the clothes, the cars, the crib) but also from two megastars lustily throwing themselves as far out of their traditional character zones as they’ve ever been.
The story covers the period between the first meeting of "Lee" (as he was known to his friends) and dog trainer Scott Thorson in 1977 to the entertainer’s AIDS-related death in 1986.
Panning out like All About Eve in diamante Speedos, it quickly sees Scott enjoying the champagne and Jacuzzis lifestyle as Lee’s secretary-chauffeur-whatever; anything but his lover. Because, incredibly, it seems that most of Liberace’s fans had no idea he was gay. (He even successfully sued a London paper in the 50s for saying so.) Here was a star who managed to spend his entire life in the closet - with the door wide open.
Scriptwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) plays the early years for laughs, even the somewhat alarming episode when Scott agrees to undergo surgery to look more like his sugar daddy. Despite several obvious temptations, this is the only time the film descends into caricature, Rob Lowe’s plastic surgeon bringing to mind Mickey Rooney’s grotesque Japanese from Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Gradually, though, things get more serious as Liberace’s paranoia and possessiveness kicks in and Scott, feeling increasingly used up and spat out, becomes hooked on diet pills. And as he well knows, there’s always another buff, young ingénue waiting in the wings.
Douglas is marvellous, astutely capturing the entertainer’s camp charisma while revealing the controlling yet ultimately lonely soul beneath. His on-screen lover is just as impressive, Damon maintaining Scott’s dignity while often treated little better than Libber’s Mini-Me.
Terrible wigs and ridiculous threads aside, they make a highly credible couple.
In less showy roles, Scott Bakula lends 70s gay-cool as the boys' mutual friend, Dan Aykroyd plays it straight as Lib’s agent, and Soderbergh adds a nice touch by having Liberace’s real-life friend Debbie Reynolds play his mum.
There is the odd snag in the fur coat. While everything looks splendid, the film engages less the longer it goes on. True story or no, the final act treads very familiar territory.
And given his subject, not to mention his own retirement, Soderbergh ends on a rather subdued note when, really, he ought to have gone out with a bang.