Behind The Candelabra (2013)
The idiom that in Hollywood ‘nobody knows anything’ is frequently expressed as the ultimate expression of short-sighted producers, culled from the famous expose of noted Tinseltown scribe William Goldman it’s an apt assertion to consider the strange history of Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final film. Originally discussing the role with Douglas on the set of 2000’s Traffic the notoriously profligate Soderbergh has spent the intervening dozen years battling philistine funders and financiers, all of whom remained tepid on the project due to the perceived marginal audience that the project would attract – it’s a gay film. Judging by the crowd I saw the film with, an 80% – 90% capacity crowd in one of East London’s larger screens on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon I expect this to be a modest hit, easily raking in its modest £23 million production budget, and crucially it has seduced critics across Europe following a successful unveiling at Cannes last month, not a bad achievement for a film which supposedly would only appeal to gay dudes and dudettes. The frustration that Soderbergh experienced in setting up and funding Behind The Candelabra appears to be the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back, and he has reputedly retreated to small screen endeavours to feed his storytelling appetite and already he has signed on to direct two HBO TV series if a small piece in this month’s Sight & Sound is to be believed. If so then TV’s gain is cinema’s loss as has consistently been a consummate filmmaker since his incendiary debut Sex, Lies & Videotape back in the deep mists of the late 1980’s, his projects vary in quality but they could always be trusted to deserve a couple of hours of your time, ranging from the big budget antics of the Oceans movies to the experimental alignments of Bubble and Full Frontal in the best tradition of ‘one for the studio, one for yourself’ format of directorial bargaining, I much prefer his more populist movies but admire anyone who could simply churn out product rather than test themselves and their own artistic boundaries, both Out Of Sight and his brave remake of Solaris age and deepen with an unexpected grace, and he’s even made Julia Roberts fairly tolerable in a few movies which is no small achievement. In this his last film – although like Ahnoldt I do think that he’ll be back – Soderbergh has crafted a spirited and oblique love story between two souls who happen to share the same genital designs, but it’s more concerned with the difficulties in preserving a public persona and private perfidy, with ideals of control and infatuation glittering in the background like a Rhinestone inflected tuxedo.
Opening to the throbbing strains of Donna Summers disco dancefloor classic it’s 1977, Southern California, and young animal husband Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) takes a weekend break in Las Vegas with his new boyfriend Bob (a hirsute Scott Bakula). When in Rome as they say they decide to take in a show, and are swiftly entranced by the ivory tinkling and commanding stage prowess of Liberace (Michael Douglas as 2014’s Best Actor Oscar early front-runner), the middle-aged pianist who effortlessly sells out show after show on the chintzy Nevada strip, his elderly fans and audience seemingly unaware of his now with the benefit of hindsight blatant preference for the more ‘fabulous’ side of life. Admitted backstage Scott is coolly besotted with the cabaret crooner, and soon a sexually charged relationship blooms with Scott acting as confessor, chauffeur and lover, moving into Liberace’s gold gilded Hollywood mansion he swiftly finds himself a caged bird in Liberace’s menagerie of glitz, glamour and pearlescent pageantry. Storm clouds begin to gather when Liberace’s obsessions with appearance and aging are deflected to his most recent paramour, with plastic surgery and prescription pills increasingly blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, as other more nubile courtesans begin to materialise on the borders of Liberace’s baroque world….
Considering the zero interest I have in Liberace I went to see this purely on the strength of Soderbergh alone, it’s almost a functional duty for we film critics to support the guy in his final effort considering some of the great movies he’s given us over the past couple of decades, and I have to say I throughly enjoyed the film, it’s a saccharine sweet and tender love story with some terrific performances, which on occasion can be also be staggeringly funny. As usual Soderbergh has mustered an impressive cast, both Damon and Douglas excel as the star twinned lovers lost on the rocky road of lust, with scene stealing support from Vegas royalty in the case of Debbie Reynolds (Liberace’s mother), an unusually good Dan Aykroyd as an exasperated agent but affection has quite rightly been lauded on Rob Lowe’s paralysed plastic surgeon whose clingfilm face positively embezzles every scene he’s in, heck it even has Burke from Aliens in it as a sneery lawyer which makes you wonder which cryosleep capsule Soderbergh defrosted him from. I’m not sure of the Academy rules given that this was shot for and aired on TV in the states – but believe me this has been crafted as a movie through and through with Soderbergh’s fulminous direction, photography and production design – so maybe Douglas won’t be eligible for nomination due to the mystical rules of the secretive Academy. Similarly Damon could even be in for a gong and fair play to him for taking on a faintly controversial role, there is plenty of shall we say ‘affection’ in the film which no doubt will raise concerned eyebrows in the more prejudiced corners of society, even in the 21st century where one hopes that such ridiculous sentiments would be consigned to the same dustbins of history as female inferiority and racial segregation.
I love how Soderbergh subtly deploys his coverage of a sequence, he starts on unusual positions and components (props, the rear of a characters head)before curving around a scene rather than resorting to the usual shot / reverse shot idiom, the technique gives the film a real sense of movement and energy which can closely be attributed as a gay Boogie Nights in both taste and tone, an extravagant journey which deliciously manoeuvres through Scott and Lee’s disordered entanglements. He revels in the gaudy and ostentatious fairy tale design of Liberace’s domicile, decor and flagrantly flamboyant dress, with Douglas taking to the stage as some elusive shimmering creature from planet kitsch, yes it can (and did) elicit occasional titters in the audience but the film plays the relationship angle relatively straight (if you’ll excuse the pun), anchoring the film on Scott’s and Liberace’s turbulent amour, and the inevitable slow disintegration of their initial infatuation. It’s clearly Damon’s movie as he is the central advocate and we see everything through his increasingly jaded eyes, rather than focusing on Liberace’s life as the traditional bio-pic template would follow, with a real warmth and affection for the characters twinned with a prescribed melancholia, all ably expressed through Soderbergh’s sharp use of lenses and lambent colour palette – he even gets to experiment a little with portraying the effects of a narcotic afflicted, drug addled perception toward the films close. If you’re crafting a swan song you always want to go out on a high, and one can’t help but see the final stage sequence as an apt conclusion to Soderbergh’s own idiosyncratic and glittering career, as the king of kitsch ascends to the heavens we can all raise to our feet for a thundering round of applause, to pay respect for a big screen career which is hopefully just suspended and not spent;