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Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon
Length: 118 minutes
"Too much of a good thing is wonderful," says Michael Douglas's Liberace in Behind The Candelabra. Well, Steven Soderbergh certainly doesn't seem to think so: this biopic of one of the 1970's most flamboyant entertainers marks the director's reluctant retirement from filmmaking, in order to focus his energies on painting. If this is to really be Soderbergh's swansong, then, he is unmistakably bowing out with a bang rather than a whimper.
But this makes it slightly galling that all involved in Behind The Candelabra are ineligible for the Oscar nominations for which they were destined. All of Hollywood's major studios refused to finance the project for fear that it would be 'too gay' to make any money so the film failed to secure a theatrical release in the US, instead debuting on American television network HBO. 'Made for television' usually suggests that a film isn't good enough for the cinema but, thankfully, Behind The Candelabra is the exception. Indeed, few films made for television play in competition at Cannes.
Soderbergh has a habit of defying expectation and, as with last year's Magic Mike, Behind The Candelabra bears little resemblance to the lightweight, campy romp the trailer would have you believe. Less a conventional biopic but, rather, a uncomfortably candid domestic drama, Behind The Candelabra documents the five-year relationship between Liberace and his much younger toy-boy, live-in assistant, and, allegedly, adopted son, Scott Thorson, played admirably here by Matt Damon.
Even in one of his more ostensibly fun films, Behind The Candelabra profits from Soderbergh's willingness to not hold back or surreptitiously smuggling in more subversive themes. Despite the film's willingness to invite us to laugh at Liberace's excesses and eccentricities it also hints at the more twisted aspects of his personality, and is unafraid to traverse darker and more unsettling territory.
After watching back his appearance of himself on The Johnny Carson Show, Liberace is horrified at his appearance proclaiming "I look like my father in drag," jolting him into undergoing a facelift that renders him unable to fully close his eyes. The true extent of his vampiric, domineering nature and self-love is revealed when he insists that Thorson undergoes cosmetic surgery too, in order to look more like a young version of himself. But the overall darkly comic tone of the film always remains assured, with the darker moments tempered by Rob Lowe's hilariously overcooked turn as the self-satisfied plastic surgeon to the stars, Jack Startz.
Whether or not Richard LaGravenese's script is 'too gay' for American cinema audiences is debatable, but it is certainly one of the frankest accounts of a deteriorating relationship in recent memory, regardless of the sexuality of those involved. The naive, corruptible Thorson, initially intent of keeping his distance, is coaxed by 'Lee' Liberace's charms after being given a tour of his tacky yet opulent home which the great man himself describes as "palatial kitsch". Eventually becoming ever more jaded in the increasingly claustrophobic relationship, his strained attempts to part himself from Liberace can be read as a comment on the homosexuals' denial to legal partnership at the time. Damon excels in the quieter of the two central roles: despite evidently being the wronged party here, and based on his book of the same title, Thorson is never portrayed completely sympathetically, instead shown to be dependent on his lover's wealth in order to fuel his fervent cocaine habit.
Similarly, in less competent hands, Liberace could have come across as a one-dimensional predatory monster but it is clear that the writer and director view their subject with some degree of affection. One of Soderbergh's most obvious skills is that of savvy casting of high-profile actors in unexpected roles and this has never been more true than in the case of Michael Douglas as Liberace. Known most for roles, such as Gordon Gekko, in which he embodied a specific form of oppressive, slightly insecure, machismo, Douglas gives a career best performance as the outrageously camp, preening concert pianist. For Soderbergh to end his career on such a high is bittersweet: the cinematic landscape will feel like a far more barren place without him.