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Behind the Plastic Surgery

Matt Damon is the real star of HBO's Liberace biopic

Claudette Barius/HBO

Ignore the title: This is not a film about a candelabra, but a very intriguing analysis of the face and what time and surgery can do to it. “Behind the Face” might have been a more suitable name, raising the question of whether there was any there there. Though the film was turned down by every Hollywood movie and relegated to HBO for being “too gay,” if you wonder whether the sex will be tough to take, don’t worry. But the surgery is something else.

Michael Douglas (whose father was of Russian descent) is a much better actor than he has been given credit for. He does not look like Wladziu Valentino Liberace (half Polish, half Italian, all show business); he looks like a clever actor pretending to be him. The most important distinction coming out of that gap is that Douglas, in his eyes and in his voice, is too smart and too knowing to attempt to pretend that Liberace was not gay. By 2013, that effort would be ridiculous, uncool, and vulgar. If there was ever any feeling that Douglas might be inwardly nervous about playing gay, that can be put to rest. Michael Douglas has a confidence in his own sexuality, and in the power of pretending. That’s what makes his performance here so attractive and amusing: He stands aside from Liberace as if to say, “Can you believe this guy?” Whereas Liberace did believe in that awful, very uncool guy.

Twenty-six years after the piano player’s death, irony may be the only way to make this film. The Liberace Museum in the side streets of Las Vegas closed several years ago, and few people under thirty have much idea of who he was, why he was so popular, or how he has become so dated. But if you look at pictures of the real Wladziu, or Lee, you will find several things missing from this film: Liberace was thick in the face (Douglas has not given up his nearly gaunt handsomeness); his eyes were hard, bright, unseeing, and dishonest. Whereas Michael Douglas was born and raised in the code that knew an actor had to look honest. (If Kirk ever had to tell a lie in a movie, he covered himself immediately with that cocky laugh.) So Michael watches the other people in Lee’s life with interest and appetite; he is wry about the gulf between his private life and his public persona; he feels possessed by a feeling that the real Liberace never had—“What a poor bastard!”

There’s also something cruel and selfish in Lee’s face. Liberace died two years after Rock Hudson, in a country invaded by AIDS, yet he tried to fade away on the legend of “heart disease,” admitting nothing of his real condition. The most piercing moment in this film is near the end, and it shows Liberace dying, without his wig, without health or hope, without lies. It is Douglas doing it, but you don’t recognize him (the makeup, headed by Kate Biscoe, is not just an exceptional craft in this film; it is close to its thematic nature). In that moment, Liberace looks like Robert Blake in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. To this day, I think, that image has been denied to the world by those who seek to maintain Liberace’s lies and his image.

Douglas is spectacular; he makes a dull story watchable, he plays to the fascination with gossip, and he lets us keep our cool. He may well win prizes, which is fair enough. But the real triumph of the film is Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson. Liberace never alters or wavers in the story (until death), but that is often the way of performers who have given up their own lives. Thorson is the character who progresses, from an aimless, star-struck pretty boy to someone who is picked up by Liberace and turned into a wife. Then, like so many wives, he begins to bore the husband and has to wonder which exit he is meant to use.

There was a real Thorson, and the script by Richard La Gravenese is based on the book Thorson published, which was labeled as a novel. That guy stuck around for six years; he was loved and fucked by Liberace; he had surgery in the effort to look like the hero; and in that process he began a descent into drug addiction. This arc allows Damon to go from plump, sulky kid to ruin. When Scott realizes that he is just one more of Lee’s boys—and a camera angle by director Steven Soderbergh rubs that in—there is a quality of humiliation, hatred, and self-loathing in his face that is remarkable. Thorson is a dirty part (if you like), for the man seems to have few redeeming features, but Damon has unearthed Thorson’s point of view, just as Douglas prefers to let us believe he is a lot more honest than Liberace ever managed to be. Damon deserves the prizes, and I think it’s clear now that he has delivered on the promise he showed in films like Courage Under Fire, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Good Shepherd, and which has had to mark time patiently in too much Bourne-ing.

It’s not easy to see why this film was made. The story is stale (it’s a Joan Crawford film with guys) and it’s stretched slow at two hours. Its makers are plainly confused as to whether Liberace is known and loved still. Surely the blue-rinse ladies who were thrilled by him in Vegas and so many other venues are gone now (or past being thrilled). The show-off piano playing seems comic, and the film gives that as little time as it can. And, unfortunately, a mainstream movie about gay sex has to be funny, with a burden that heterosexual sex would never have to bear. Yes, we see Michael and Matt pretending to have sex, but Michael is used to that—he rode with Sharon Stone and Demi Moore.

The humor is refreshing. It’s there in a lot of the dialogue, and in Rob Lowe’s unrestrained wickedness as a plastic surgeon whose own eyes are so narrow it’s a wonder he can see to work. Then there is Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace’s Mom. Reynolds knew Liberace. Indeed, she had her own museum of movie costumes in Vegas, and that closed too. You wouldn’t recognize her as Mom, until she speaks. Then she has lines that Carrie Fisher might have written. She has her own slot machine in the Liberace-Thorson household, but the boys have forgotten to load it up with coins. When she wins, they have to root around for some money to give her. She masks her dismay, and … well I won’t tell you what she says but it’s the best joke in the film.

Watching today as Scott and Lee go to lawyers and depositions to settle their property dispute, we have an unexpected shot of irony on civil unions turning uncivil. I think that angle could have been pushed—the film cries out for the sort of lacerating wit Billy Wilder brought to Sunset Blvd. But it could have been far worse; and it should have been shorter and more pungent. Douglas is more than acceptable, but Damon has made an unforgettable character. Of course, he had the advantage: For some of us Liberace is still a fake moon in the sky—we know what he looked like. We remember the mincing dishonesty. But Scott Thorson is unknown and he comes out of the dark as the story that needs to be told.

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.