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Liberace, Phil Spector: HBO’s Poor Little Rich Men

Two recent HBO biopics strangely highlight the burdens of fame and money

Two recent high-profile HBO movies, “Phil Spector” and now the Liberace tell-all “Behind the Candelabra,” each touch upon a theme that should possess special resonance around Hollywood – namely, an aging man who can’t trust hangers-on to love him for himself, as opposed to his money and power.

Admittedly, the protagonists in the two films present the ultimate odd couple. Still, beyond wealth, eccentricity and a taste for chewing scenery, what the two share is intriguing, particularly in the context of a town where power, money and fame – always aphrodisiacs – are in such abundant supply.

“All you want is to see what you can get out of me,” Liberace, as played by Michael Douglas, snaps at one of his young paramours, and who around town with greenlighting capabilities hasn’t had that thought, although probably not while clad in a cape and sequins.

In other words, it’s lonely at the top.

The key point of contrast between the characters, and one reason the Liberace pic (reviewed in full by Variety’s Peter Debruge) works far more successfully, is in that case the filmmakers approach the story from the perspective of a younger man, played by Matt Damon, pulled into the star’s orbit.

In “Phil Spector,” on the other hand, writer-director David Mamet proved surprisingly sympathetic toward the since-convicted murderer, allowing Spector to dismiss the actress who died in his estate, Lana Clarkson, as a failed wannabe whose stupidity (by, he claims, putting a gun in her mouth) caused all of his troubles.

In similar fashion, Spector derides his ex-wife as “This backup signer to whom I gave everything I own,” along with other women who testified that he threatened them.

As Salon’s Willa Paskin shrewdly observed when the movie made its debut in March, “Mamet’s movie takes the position that fame is a kind of Faustian bargain, but the price the famous pay is not their soul, but other people’s ignorant opinions and deeds. … It is a piece that could only have been made by someone famous, or someone close enough to the famous to have almost total, skewed sympathy for their plight.”

HBO has a knack for placing its thumb on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist, although in this connection, it’s doubtful even the pay service was fully conscious of the overlap.

Political sex scandals invariable renew old debates about why men cheat and why women are attracted to powerful men, but womanizers (or in Liberace’s case, man-izers) seldom seem particularly concerned about anthropological underpinnings regarding why, as opposed to the more opportunistic who and where.

At the same time, we’ve seen a spate of recent articles contemplating manifestations of society’s growing wealth and income disparity. The boxoffice success of “The Great Gatsy” has provided inspiration to New York Times film critic A.O. Scott and New Yorker writer George Packer, who in a Times op-ed identified a new strain of celebrity that represents “the ultimate costume ball, far more exclusive and decadent than even the most potent magnates of Hollywood’s studio era could have dreamed up.”

Finally, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times asked whether money really can buy happiness. Although the piece concluded that “material goods often fail to deliver lasting happiness,” it also noted “a growing body of research shows that the mere whiff of money draws out our selfish sides, focusing us on what that money can do for us, and us alone.”

Small wonder the super-rich in these movies — awash in privilege and accustomed to exploiting unequal power relationships — behave boorishly in their sexual dalliances, seeking to fill voids “material goods” apparently don’t. Or to borrow the Liberace quote that doubles as “Beyond the Candelabra’s” promotional tag, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

While it might be a strange place to turn for insight, the sitcom “Two and a Half Men” has long grappled with this issue, with illuminating results. The show began with an unrepentant ladies man, who didn’t really care if women slept with him just because of his money and beachfront house. He gave way to a billionaire terribly concerned about being appreciated for more than his financial portfolio.

As it turns out, the first guy was a lot more fun.

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