“I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.”
So claimed Steven Soderbergh in an interview earlier this year, where he also explained why he was retiring from film directing (although he still plans to do theatre and possibly a TV series). Behind the Candelabra then, if the reports are true, is set to be the final film by one of the most prolific and versatile contemporary American directors.
Soderbergh has mixed big-budget fare (the Ocean’s franchise, Erin Brockovich) with micro-budget indie (Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Girlfriend Experience) as well as more personal, experimental projects (Kafka, Schizopolis). This eclecticism as well as his work rate (28 features in 24 years) means his filmography is a bit hit-and-miss, but it also gives him a unique status in US cinema as someone who has never been afraid to do his own thing. It’s perhaps apt then that his last film was funded not by the studios, but the cable TV network HBO.
The idea for a Liberace biopic was first conceived on the set of Traffic (2000), when after reading the memoirs of Liberace’s ex-lover Scott Thorson, Soderbergh spoke to Michael Douglas about playing the legendary pianist/entertainer. Later Richard LaGravenese (writer of The Fisher King) was hired for the script and only finding backing was left before production could start. Asking for a budget of $5 million, measly by Hollywood standards, Soderbergh did the rounds of all major studios, just to be turned down every single time. In Soderbergh’s words the studios told him the subject matter was “too special” or “too gay”. A strange attitude just a couple of years after the success of Brokeback Mountain...
Eventually the only option left was TV. When HBO were approached, they were immediately enthusiastic, and thus Candelabra became the TV-movie event of 2013 (although it is being released theatrically outside the States, and premiered at Cannes). Is this indication then that, in the generation of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, television (and perhaps even the internet) now allows more freedom for ambitious directors to work in, and is even outdoing movies in terms of cultural impact? After all, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher are also increasingly making the move to small-screen media, and the fact of the matter is, despite being technically a TV-movie, Candelabra is still very much a cinematic work that looks great on a big screen, so it loses nothing.
We can be grateful that the likes of HBO do actually still take risks on slightly different scripts, because the result of all this is one of the most entertaining biopics in a long while. Walter Valentino Liberace, a flamboyant and charismatic matinee idol, was once the highest paid musician in the world. He was incredibly popular with mainstream “middle America” audiences who ironically (and as strange as it seems to us now) didn’t have a clue he was gay despite all his obvious campness. Naturally in order to keep that fanbase, Liberace had to remain firmly in the closet, so his private life was made up of various love affairs with younger men, the longest of which was his relationship with Scott Thorson, which is the core of the film’s plot.
The film moves along at swift pace, we first see Scott (Matt Damon) meeting Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a club, and a couple of scenes later the two are at a Liberace show in Las Vegas, where Michael Douglas makes a winning entrance with the piano-playing gestures and crowd interaction of Liberace. Scott then meets him backstage, thanks to Bob’s connections, and there is immediate physical attraction from the older man. The remainder of the film charts the rise and fall of their admittedly bizarre relationship. Liberace wants to be “father, brother, lover, best friend, everything” to Scott, and it’s understandable why the younger man, who has grown up in various foster homes, is tempted by the life Liberace offers him.
The reason both the highs and lows of their affair feel so believable is how 3-dimensional the two characters are, with both showing qualities and weaknesses. Scott is a loyal and genuine companion, but falls prey to addiction when Liberace’s sleazy plastic surgeon (played by a lizard-like Rob Lowe under a ton of make-up) prescribes him amphetamine diet pills. As for Liberace, he is clearly compassionate and doting, but cannot resist averting his eyes from younger potential suitors. We are thus left to make our own minds up on the characters and decide ourselves whether there really was a love between them, or if it was simply a functional need for love all along.
There is also symmetry in the structure of the narrative, with the brilliantly acted intimate dialogue scenes going from tender at the beginning to argumentative and bitchy later. One telling shot near the end sees Scott sulkily sitting in the corner of Liberace’s dressing room with exactly the same camera angle and facial expression as the previous jilted lover before him had at the start of the film, having in effect replaced him only to be replaced himself. But best of all, the touching and fantastical coda where Scott re-imagines Liberace’s funeral as a final special performance just for him, mirrors the way he first saw him at the Vegas show.
Much credit then to LaGravenese’s sharp script, especially as it cannot always go for factual accuracy since there are some things it can’t know. But Candelabra successfully conveys the essence of what it must have felt like to be in Liberace’s position, living two totally different lives, one in the public eye and the other behind closed doors. And for that, the biggest praise goes to Michael Douglas, in probably the best role of his life, and who expected that to happen to him at 69, when the American movie industry usually gives its veteran actors cliched supporting roles. He nails the part, Liberace is fully-formed both as stage personality and as flawed human, and whilst it’s a pity for him it can’t be an Oscar, Douglas will surely be in line for an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
But this is very much a team effort. The film couldn’t work without Matt Damon’s intelligent performance, though he generously leaves the showier moments to Douglas, and to a stellar support cast including Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd and Bakula (all barely recognisable) who steal many a scene. The costumes, set design and make-up are all at the high standard they need to be to make this kitsch 1970s setting believable. Last but not least, Soderbergh again shows what a gifted director he can be, combining all these elements into a totally cohesive whole. As for the visuals, with his trusty RED digital camera, which he has used ever since Che (2008), he weaves compositions of yellow and brown tones, fitting with the bling of Liberace’s palatial mansion (and the suntans!). If this does indeed turn out to be his final feature, then it is an excellent note to bow out on but more to the point, it will be cinema’s loss.
Behind the Candelabra: ★★★★
Dir: Steven Soderbergh