Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Greatest Photograph on the Internet

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Behind the Liberace biopics

Any reservations about Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra should dissipate upon contact with Liberace: Behind the Music, a godawful TV movie rushed out a year after the maestro succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1987.  

Behind the Candelabra honors Liberace as the first rock 'n' roller and as such seems based less on Scott Thorson's memoir of his tenure as Lee's bejazzled boytoy than on Dave Hickey's essay "A Rhinestone as Big as The Ritz" from his collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy. In Hickey's estimation, Liberace's first tour of England in 1956 marks the beginning of rock 'n' roll. The British press, stinging from postwar austerity measures, recoiled from his gender-bent displays of gross accumulation, most notoriously Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra (William Connor) who worried about the effect this "deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love" had on teens and middle-aged matrons alike and lost a libel suit as a result. Little Richard, meet Liberace who was you before you were you, a game changer poised to get under the skin of moralists everywhere.

By reducing Liberace's bio to his relationship with Thorson, Behind the Candelabra bubblebathes in his queer quotient and reeks of rock 'n' roll excess. Ringing with cicadas and disco, saturated in canola oil yellows, fulfilling a grossout quota with grody plastic surgery footage, recoiling not from amyl nitrate-assisted gay sex and judicious makeout closeups, ensconced on HBO away from Hollywood's safe tentpole franchises, Soderbergh's latest (and reportedly last) act of rebellion gives off the hothouse feverishness of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Flowers of Shanghai, precisely the tribute a squirm-inducing icon deserves.

By dreary contrast, Liberace: Behind the Music purports to tell the man's entire life such that the script (by Gavin Lambert!) reads as if delivered by telegram. A typical stroke occurs when Liberace (an uncomfortable Victor Garber) embraces a photograph of his mother (Maureen Stapleton, wasted) and exclaims "Well, we all have to go sometime" mere seconds before Thorson (Michael Dolan) experiences a drug freakout, killing two story points with one shot. He's shown kissing two women in closeup, with the lipstick to prove it to Mama in the first instance, but consummates a post-Thorson relationship (Shawn Levy) with a handshake. And despite dramatizing his crucial meeting with Elvis, the movie remains safely within a pre-rock reality. Where Behind the Candelabra kicks off with the poppered-up narcissism of "I Feel Love," Liberace: Behind the Music is larded down with endless renditions of Beethoven and "I'll Be Seeing You." The entire sorry production is best summarized by this Wikipedia note: "A TV film of noteworthy production value[citation needed]." Indeed.

A supposedly even less queer biopic from the same year, entitled simply Liberace, remains unavailable at the moment, thank gawd.

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