Two Biopics With All-Star Casts and Fond Farewells

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By Darren Johnson

Before the end of his life in 1984, knowing he was dying of cancer, comedic tsunami Andy Kaufman did a sold out show at Carnegie Hall, replete with the Rockettes and Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and took all of the patrons, via bus, to a local school for cookies and milk.

Just before he died of AIDS in 1987, over-the-top pianist Liberace did a series of sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall, smashing attendance records at the beloved venue.

Both of these performers stood out and helped define the outrageous entertainment of the 1970s. They headlined Vegas and New York and really blossomed in the TV of the era, where variety shows would regularly break away for “something completely different.”

And now each of these one-of-a-kind performers has a new life – with biopics of Kaufman on Netflix (“Man on the Moon”) and Liberace (“Behind the Candelabra”) on HBO. And both feature full and poignant portraits of two men who often played caricatures of themselves; a complicated feat for a film.

Jim Carrey seems to get a bad rap in the blogosphere. The general consensus is that he is not funny and his films suck. But I think he is just misunderstood. He is not a mainstream comedic actor; perhaps he was miscast in such roles (“Liar, Liar,” “Bruce Almighty”), and thus made them more painful to watch. But I think he had killer performances in the first “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” movie along with “Dumb and Dumber,” and even less heralded movies, such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” not quite a comedy, and, my favorite of these listed, “The Cable Guy,” which only has a 54% fresh rating on rottentomatoes.

So it makes sense that Carrey would play Kaufman, whose taste was not in the mainstream (and the fact that he had mainstream success – playing Latka on “Taxi” – tormented him). “Man in the Moon,” while just scoring a 63% fresh rating, channels Kaufman perfectly and is a film I have seen at least a half a dozen times. The film, directed earnestly by Milos Foreman, is charming and seems to cover Kaufman’s whole career, much like the Carnegie Hall show, from his start doing Elvis and “Foreign Man” impressions in smoky clubs (perhaps how he, a nonsmoker, got lung cancer), to finding a co-writer, Bob Zmuda, and agent, played by Danny DeVito (also of “Taxi”), “Saturday Night Live,” to turning Foreign Man into Latka for mainstream TV, to his college and Vegas appearances to his strange foray into wrestling, first women, and then professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. This film covers a lot of ground and has been totally misunderstood by many critics.

“Man on the Moon” also brings together the “Taxi” cast to recreate a real life scene where Kaufman’s alter ego character, vulgar lounge singer Tony Clifton, shows up on set, with two hookers, and wrecks the place. The genius of Kaufman was blurring the lines between reality and the bizarre.

During his Carnegie Hall show, he ushers onstage an older woman who he says starred in an old black and white movie a long while ago. He shows a clip of the old film and encourages her to do the dance she had done on screen. She complies, but has a heart attack. Kaufman calls for a doctor. After much time trying to revive the woman, the doctor looks away sullenly and places a cover over her face. The audience gasps. Then there is a long silence. Kaufman comes back onstage in an Indian headdress and does a dance, the woman comes back to life, the Morman Tabernacle Choir appears from up above, singing “Alajuela!” and the Rockettes come out can-canning as the audience is whipped up into a frenzy. It’s the ultimate act of showmanship, and the best way for Kaufman to go out.

At the end of “Behind the Candelabra,” a film directed superbly by Steven Soderbergh, Liberace seemingly floats into the clouds, at least on a set on stage, where there is a sparkling piano; he plays, happily, as dancers can-can all around him. His New York shows at the end of his life featured the same fanfare. And, Liberace is no Tony Clifton.

“Candelabra,” produced by and now playing on HBO, is well put together with an all-star cast – most notably Michael Douglas playing Liberace and Matt Damon playing his love interest, Scott Thorson.

While Liberace’s autobiographical books were mostly PR bunk – he tried to maintain an image as a straight man, as most of his fans were older, straight women (“How do they not know?” the Thorson character wonders) – the movie is based the book “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace” by Thorson.

While the book, published way back in 1988, did not do great business, it finally resulted in this excellent adaptation. Reportedly, Thorson is still alive, though ill and in jail. At least he will get to see his story told.

The movie mostly focuses on the gay relationship, though is a bit softer in one facet of that relationship and doesn’t brand Liberace quite a predator – thought Thorson was 16 when they met and dumped by age 24 when Liberace, in his 60s, started eying a new boyish looking teen. Damon, 42, does, however, capture that youthful essence, and, considering there are some sexual scenes in this movie, it would have been wrong to cast a much younger actor (though the reality of it is creepy).

Douglas also is convincing as Lee Liberace, and we do get an inside look at the man behind not only the candelabra and sequined piano but also the toupee and overbearing mother.

It is fun seeing straight actors who usually play stereotypically manly roles as flamboyant homosexuals; add Scott Bakula to the mix, sporting a 1970s ’stache. Another breakout performance comes from Rob Lowe, playing the stoned-out plastic surgeon who is hired to make Thorson look like a young Liberace, at Liberace’s insistence.

Both “Man on the Moon” and “Behind the Candelabra” do fantastic jobs of capturing the essence of two very unique personalities hidden under tough shells, who would be hard to figure out just based on their respective bodies of work. These movies add to their legacies by making them more real.