(Published on ARTSCLASH)
From the opening buzz of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ that opens this film, it’s clear we’re in camp territory. In fact, it couldn’t be clearer if there was a sign saying Butlins having over the film the whole time. This film is the campest thing I’ve seen since…well, Pink Flamingos, but to be fair when you write a regular column about camp culture, that is going to happen.
Anyway, the general kitsch of the subject matter (Liberace, the gay Las Vegas pianist that makes Elton John look like Vin Diesel) has given everyone a chance to really ham it up, which makes this film at it’s best a whole lot of fun. This is particularly true of Rob Lowe as a grisly coked-up plastic surgeon: the entrance price is worth it for him alone.
And that’s not just a screenshot taken when he’s in between gestures. That’s what his face looks like in this. Here it is in motion:
In fact, all of the performances are great in this, especially the two leads, Michael Douglas’s Oedipal nightmare version of Liberace and Matt Damon as his long-time lover/driver/nearly adopted son (you don’t have to be Freud…) . Their level of committment to camp stops the film from becoming ridiculous, featuring real moments of tenderness that, whilst always a little creepy (HE TRIED TO ADOPT HIM) are touching even when dealing with such a larger-than-life character as Liberace, a man for whom this was standard going to the shops clothes:
That said, I feel the film falls back on the awe of its main character a little too much, expecting the viewer’s shock at this figure’s increasingly warped personality and relationships to mask what is actually a fairly standard rise and fall of a star story. For all of the hype about this being a new sort of film for Hollywood, it really is just a gay Boogie Nights, and seeing as that was just a porn Sunset Boulevard there is clearly a long tradition. The film at times seems stuck between revelling in star status and trying to show us the normality of the central relationship in all its initial tenderness and final bitterness.
However, the ‘rise and fall’ story is a great one, and it admittedly is done very well here through the claustrophobia of endless kitschy overwrought rooms and the contrast between Liberace the performer and the man, although it is left ambiguous how much these blur into each other. Plus, y’know, Rob Lowe…
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