Superhuman Showmanship

The po-faced Man of Steel isn’t nearly as absorbing as Soderbergh’s portrait of the Man of Rhinestone

Peter Whittle

In the 1970s Liberace was one of the highest paid entertainers in America, up there in the showbiz pantheon with Frank, Elvis and Barbra. Now he has virtually disappeared from the collective cultural memory-astonishing really, for whether he inspired devotion or nausea, he most certainly was a one-off. The nearest thing we’ve had since in terms of piano-playing diamond-encrusted showmanship — at least before he became all worthy and paternal — is Elton John, and he comes from a different tradition. Liberace was Variety through and through, albeit on steroids and as produced by a hallucinating Ken Russell.

Few if any people under 20, glancing at the posters on the tube for Behind the Candelabra, the new biopic with Michael Douglas, can have any clue who Liberace was. I think it was this, and not the rampant homophobia complained of by its director Steven Soderbergh, which caused every Hollywood studio to turn the picture down (it ended up being made and shown by HBO, but in Europe has cinematic distribution). Hollywood cares about money and money only, and if gay-themed pictures got the tills ringing loud enough they’d be churning them out three a week. But the fact is, studio bosses these days have to have their eyes fixed firmly on the likes and dislikes of 14-year-old Mexican, Japanese and, increasingly, Chinese boys, for they are their main audience. And these kids like superheroes and elves, not 1970s camp retro, however knowingly or not it’s served up.

I’ve never in any case been convinced by the homophobia charge that’s levelled regularly at Hollywood by actors, indie directors and Rupert Everett. I can’t think of a town that has a more established and visible gay power base, nor one where that power really means something; our own gay A-list is by comparison paltry. And it is right-on Democrat too; I recall attending one party in the Hollywood Hills (known locally as the Swish Alps) hosted by an out gay producer, packed wall to wall with guys who were there on the basis of wealth, influence or simply looks. It was a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. In five years in LA I met just one out-and-proud Republican, and he was an agent.   

In Liberace’s day it was admittedly different. Concentrating on his relationship with Scott Thorson, 40 years his junior and on whose memoir it is based, Behind the Candelabra does a good job of recreating the 1970s without wallowing in postmodern irony; it’s a straight-up period film. It also has the virtue of taking Liberace seriously where it would have been so easy to make him into a cartoon. If anything, Michael Douglas makes him slightly less grotesque, slightly harder and more masculine than the soft-as-marshmallow character I remember seeing on TV. We’re never really convinced by the spin that in the midst of all this gilt and fur there was a story of true love, because it’s clear from the start that poor Scott (played by Matt Damon) will eventually be traded in for a younger model. But it is still a highly absorbing portrayal of the particular kind of symbiotic relationship that has always existed between rich, powerful men and poor but handsome boys, or pretty girls for that matter.

This is Douglas’s first film since his much publicised illness, and I for one hope completely normal service is fully resumed. From Wall Street to Falling Down to Wonder Boys, he has shown himself to be one of our greatest screen actors: intelligent and humorous, he inspires in one that sense of being in safe hands which comes with only the best of performers. If he lacks the legendary status of his father, it is only because our era is not conducive to legend-making, for he is certainly a better actor, and indeed has been a star for longer. In Behind the Candelabra, he manages to make an otherwise stock deathbed scene into something awful and startling. Liberace probably wouldn’t have chosen Douglas to play him, but he would have been wrong.

From Man of Rhinestone to Man of Steel: Superman is back, bigger, bolder and at nearly two-and-a-half hours, frankly more boring than ever. The elephantine Christopher Reeve film from 1978 boasted the longest credit sequence in the history of cinema. This new version must break some kind of record for noise levels and the number of office blocks destroyed. It’s a pity that amid all the grandiosity some humour wasn’t allowed to slip in somewhere. The pomposity with which comic strip heroes are now routinely treated is a sign not of our growing sophistication but our increasing infantilisation; it’s down to all those teenage boys again, and the money to be got from piling on the flattery.

As with the recent Batman makeover, Man of Steel is po-facedly referred to as an “origins” movie, i.e. we should expect one every two years from now until, well, infinity. The initial sequences set on the dying planet of Krypton are in fact the best, like one of those apocalyptic paintings by John Martin you can see in the Tate. It drew me in, for a time. But even here the awe is kept in check by the knowledge that this was all done inside a computer. How much more of this synthetic wonder can people take before finally turning their backs? Rather than firing the imagination, the pyrotechnics just deaden it. You can see it on the faces of people as they leave the cinema — expressionless and dead-eyed. And they’re the ones who enjoyed it.

The British actor Henry Cavill, whom we last saw in tights as the Duke of Suffolk in that history-porno series The Tudors, is our hero this time and he is without doubt a real specimen. Outrageously handsome and with a machine-tooled body, he makes poor old Reeve look like a flab-ball. Rather than plumping for Superman, Cavill should have held out for Bond. As it is, he swoops, he soars, he says very little. Perhaps in future instalments his character will be allowed to “grow”. But here, he is swamped by the relentless visuals around him — the explosions, the falling masonry and a finale of super-hero confrontations which seems to go on for a full hour. The lights eventually went up, but I’m afraid my mind had long since gone up, up and away.

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