Behind the Candelabra – Soderbergh and Douglas create a Liberace biopic that hits all the right notes

There are few directors out there now who can be described as true auteurs – filmmakers who have a unique, uncompromising vision and are dedicated to their craft. However Steven Soderbergh is one such director, his works consistently following his own rules in order to create films that use bold stories and that all have an instantly recognisable look to them. But now Soderbergh has sadly announced his retirement from filmmaking stating that he despises the treatment of directors at the hands of the controlling studios and financiers. His last film, the hugely disappointing Side Effects, was therefore unfortunately his swan song from the world of the big screen. His next and final project was Behind the Candelabra, a made for TV biopic about the life of the famous pianist Liberace. But has Soderbergh’s swap from the big to the small screen stifled his usual style?

It’s worth mentioning that Behind the Candelabra might not have made it on to any screens at all, big or small. The struggle to get it made was immense. It was a project originally intended for the big screen, but with major studios skittish over backing a film about a gay icon, it wasn’t meant to be. Thankfully it was American TV channel HBO who stepped in to rescue the project, commissioning it to be made for their station. After high viewer ratings and a successful screening at Cannes though, studios picked up the rights to the film so it could be shown in UK cinemas and in other countries. This meant that despite being a US TV release for once we didn’t get a raw deal and we still get to see this entertaining drama about the famous and talented pianist who lived a luxurious life…as well as a concealed one.

‘Mr. Showmanship’ as people called him was hugely dedicated to his craft, performing 2 sell-out shows a night in his later years. He also harboured a big secret – he was gay. But being gay in show business and at a time in which to be so was deemed highly controversial, he had to keep it quiet. There is also another side to Liberace’s story that is often unexplored. He had a tempestuous yet loving 5 year relationship with a young man called Scott Thorson. It is this side of the tale that Behind the Candelabra explores in vivid detail. The year is 1977 when Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott (Matt Damon) happen to meet one night after one of Lib’s concerts, and the two instantly (and inevitably) become drawn to each other. Pretty soon Scott is living with Liberace (or ‘Lee’ as his friends call him) and having to conform to the norms of the crazy California lifestyle.

This complicated story of Lib and Scott’s relationship is in fact adapted for the screen from the real Scott Thorson’s own biography. The adaptation itself is superb, Richard LaGravenese’s script hitting all the right notes in the couple’s lives. The pace of the film is slow without being stagnant, just enough to let Scott and Lib’s relationship slowly unfold before us so we are able to invest in it and so it is in turn believable. Behind the Candelabra is first and foremost a drama, full of poignant moments between the two as well as the problems that later inevitably begin to emerge between them. However this being a Steven Soderbergh film, there is also a fair deal of comedy in it as well, whether that be of a laugh-out-loud kind, or a gruesome cringeworthy kind. Mostly the comedic moments come later on after the beginning of the couple’s initial dalliance, when the complexities begin to emerge from keeping their relationship a secret. There is also plenty of comedy to be had from showing the stranger side to the rich and famous lifestyle Liberace leads. This unusual world is cleverly represented by the introduction of Dr. Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon who is played to hilarious perfection by Rob Lowe. With his face pulled into obscurity he is a complete parody of the fame ideal of looking young for as long as you can in order to keep in the spotlight. You can’t help but laugh at Lowe’s appearance or his pained, half expressions as the doctor who is more plastic than human.

Much like Liberace himself though, Michael Douglas is absolutely the star of this show.  He excels as the ageing, camp performer, creating him as a soft-spoken man obsessed with glam, riches and good looks. Douglas also ensures his Liberace doesn’t become too creepy in his relationship with the much younger Scott by lending him a touch of the pathetic as well as making him vulnerable, both in body and mind. Matt Damon is also brilliant as Scott Thorson again creating a character who isn’t overly camp or stereotypical and who has his own insecurities to deal with. It is also a huge credit to both actors that Scott and Liberace’s relationship doesn’t feel sordid but instead is entirely loving, sweet and realistic. Furthermore the film makes a valid point of showing us that despite their initial arrangement, the two really did care for each other.

Soderbergh’s direction is (as with all of his work) another star in itself. Beautiful and engaging to watch it draws us in to Lib and Scott’s world and their rocky relationship. Soderbergh makes full use of his camera, allowing it to sometimes sit back in order to watch the characters talk to each other and conversely at other times bringing it in close to show us their emotions in full. He also uses the same warm tones and yellowish, sunny filter that he uses for most of his films. In particular this look is perfectly fitted to the scenes backstage in Liberace’s dressing room, the garish yellows giving the place an eerie, claustrophobic and almost unreal feel. With Soderbergh’s superb and involving direction one thing is for sure – this certainly feels like a film that wasn’t made for TV, the big screen actually being perfect for what he wants to convey to the audience.

Steven Soderbergh’s final film is a fabulously entertaining biopic of a genius performer as well as his secret and put-upon lover. Like Soderbergh’s recent other feature, Magic Mike, this too is another film of his that cleverly shows the lure of the glam and fame and the awful consequences it can have on people. The whole look of the film is lush, Soderbergh making use of every frame to tell us something and make us feel what Lib and Scott feel. And to top it off the performances from everyone involved are the best you will see for a long time. In particular this is Michael Douglas at his very, very best as he embodies an icon and plays him as a vulnerable and realistic man, cleverly avoiding becoming simply a camp parody of what Liberace was. If this really is Soderbergh’s final film, whether it be for the big or small screen, this is a more than fitting end to a brilliant career and a high note to end on. Indeed by showing Liberace as worn down by the many performances he has to carry out day after day, Soderbergh does seem to be making a comparison to himself and saying “enough is enough”. Maybe it is. But I still secretly hold out hope that it isn’t…

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~ by square-eyed-geek on July 5, 2013.

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