LIFE AF­TER THE SHOW

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

THERE must be a whole gen­er­a­tion of movie­go­ers — gen X or gen Y or what­ever — with no mem­ory of Lib­er­ace, the Amer­i­can pi­anist and vo­cal­ist who died of an AID­Sre­lated ill­ness in 1987. So why make a film about him?

With those beefy, boy­ish fea­tures he was no mati­nee idol in the es­tab­lished Hol­ly­wood tra­di­tion; his bald­ness was hid­den be­neath wigs. He was never a nat­u­ral co­me­dian and, by all ac­counts, he was an aw­ful pi­anist — spe­cial­is­ing, as he put it, in ‘‘ clas­si­cal mu­sic with the bor­ing bits left out’’. Se­ri­ous mu­si­cians de­spised him and he had no place in pop mu­sic’s creative main­stream.

But he was a mas­ter of self-pro­mo­tion. With a mix­ture of camp on-stage flam­boy­ance and a life­style of fla­grant ex­cess, he be­came a pop­cul­tural su­per­star in the 1950s and 60s, and for a time was the high­est paid en­ter­tainer in the world. Steven Soder­bergh’s film Be­hind the Can­de­labra is a loving sa­lute to his phoni­ness, his vul­gar­ity, his in­ner lone­li­ness.

At the peak of his ca­reer he liked to boast: ‘‘ I don’t give con­certs, I put on a show.’’ And he was true to his word. His many nick­names (prob­a­bly self-be­stowed) in­cluded The Glit­ter Man and Mr Show­man­ship. His trade­mark props were richly se­quinned gold jack­ets trimmed with mink and os­trich feath­ers; even at the key­board, his fin­gers with adorned with enor­mous rings. His pi­anos were elab­o­rate hand-crafted af­fairs cov­ered with gold leaf and en­crusted with rhine­stones and mir­rors. His Las Vegas man­sion boasted a pi­anoshaped swim­ming pool. He once de­clared: ‘‘ Too much of a good thing is won­der­ful.’’ They are the last words we hear from him in Soder­bergh’s film and are prom­i­nent in the posters. But they were not Lib­er­ace’s words. They were first used by Mae West, the 30s screen siren who pro­duced more fa­mous one­lin­ers than any other Hol­ly­wood celebrity of her time: ‘‘ It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men’’ is an­other line that could have come quite ap­pro­pri­ately from the lips of Mr Show­man­ship.

Soder­bergh’s film was made for tele­vi­sion and had its first broad­cast in the US in May this year af­ter a screen­ing in Cannes. And while purists would ar­gue a TV movie is some­thing less than a proper ex­am­ple of cin­e­matic art, there was a logic to the choice of medium. Lib­er­ace’s ca­reer owed ev­ery­thing to TV, which guar­an­teed him a mass au­di­ence in a way his cabaret ap­pear­ances and night­club acts could not. In The Lib­er­ace Show, which be­gan run­ning on net­work tele­vi­sion in 1952, he de­vel­oped a tech­nique of chat­ting and jok­ing with the au­di­ence. As he boasts in the film: ‘‘ I was the first per­son on TV to look di­rectly at the cam­era.’’

The face look­ing di­rectly at the cam­era in Be­hind the Can­de­labra is that of Michael Dou­glas. I’ve long been an ad­mirer of Dou­glas but here he gives one of the great screen

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