Everything about this movie is incredible. The camp. The chandeliers. Stiff-faced Rob Lowe and Eastern-European Debbie Reynolds! It has the same stylish direction of any Steven Soderbergh film, but is easily his most playful. If it wasn’t based on a true story, it could serve as a prequel to Ocean’s Eleven, explaining how Matt Damon’s character went from Liberace boy toy to master casino thief.
But the most amazing thing about this larger-than-life movie is that it is based on real life. Scott Thorson is a real person, and back in the late 70s/early 80s he had a very bizarre, dependent relationship with the famed, jewel attire loving piano maestro Liberace. Their relationship is one that could have only existed in the neon-lit dreamscape of Las Vegas, echoed by Scott’s guardians back in LA who are utterly perplexed by this whole thing. Liberace is both a liberating force and a controlling one to Scott. He fashions him wish luxury jewelry and classic cars, but balks at him having any sort of outside life.
It’s atypical, over-powered relationship stuff, but less atypical because it’s happening between an aspiring veterinarian from LA and one of the most acclaimed entertainers in the world. Scott starts off as boyfriend, then employee, then potential adopted son. Oh wait, that might have been before he became a plastic surgery-modified version of younger Liberace. But it was definitely before he was a stagehand and neglected boyfriend, then nothing. Liberace shows true love and admiration for Scott but its misplaced. To Liberace, he’s nothing more than just another one of his pets, shitting on the floor.
Soderbergh isn’t really asking us to empathize with Scott, nor should we have to. The movie is more an examination of this high profile romance than a critique of it. Like Las Vegas itself, none of it ever feels real, just some lavish, cocaine-fueled vacation where Scott managed to win $1 million off a slot machine and got a comp for a free five years at Liberace’s mansion. Even when his guardian Rose dies, we don’t see him at the funeral, but just him jet-setting back to Vegas, ready to dive into fantasy once again. They’re just characters in an elaborate Vegas show and everyone else is just a stagehand, trying to keep the production afloat.
But this fantasy ends after Liberace is on his death bed from Pneumonia after contracting AIDS. Now, we finally see Scott again in the real world. He’s working a retail job and lives in a pretty standard apartment. With the relationship never made public, Scott has nothing to show for his time with Liberace. No photos, no cash or memoirs, just thoughts of fur coats and lavish bubble baths which have lost their suds. Liberace isn’t remembered for his great piano playing skills, but instead as being a closeted man who just happened to be very good at piano. It’s like the whole thing never happened, an elaborate, intoxicating fever dream. We may struggle to remember our dreams in the morning, but just like this movie, we have a ball drifting through the chandelier’s glow in the middle of the night.