LIFE AFTER THE SHOW
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