When Steven Soderbergh shopped around his Liberace biopic project, practically every studio in Hollywood took a pass on it, causing the director to publicly renounce the movie biz and say he was moving to TV, where he made the film for cable network HBO. It’s easy to see why the studios passed: 1960s-’70s whiz-pianist Liberace is barely remembered these days, and when he is, it’s for an extravagant level of kitsch that made even Vegas-era Elvis or monkey-on-a-leash Wacko Jacko seem like paragons of restraint.
Soderbergh does play this aspect for some laughs — all poodles and sequins and pink tuxedos — but he digs a little deeper and finds a story in there, of an outrageously camp and obviously gay performer who somehow remained in the closet for his entire career.
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Michael Douglas shape-shifts into the lead role, playing Liberace as a charming old queen who could just as soon shift gears into ruthless vindictiveness. Matt Damon, almost unrecognizable under ’70s wigs and makeup, plays one of Liberace’s many younger lovers, Scott Thorson, upon whose memoir this is based. Like so many ’70s stories, it ends in a downward spiral of hubris and sex and drug excess, but it remains a fascinating look at a dysfunctional relationship where one party is totally dependent on the other.