7 June 2013


How many more times can I mention the whole thing about Steven Soderbergh's retirement? It comes up every time he has a film out, and even as he reaches the self-imposed twilight of his cinematic career, we've never had long to wait before he's releasing another one. Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects would be a pretty solid run in anyone's book, and it's criminal that Beyond The Candelabra isn't getting a cinema release worldwide.

The HBO film, adapted from Scott Thorson's memoir of his secret relationship with flamboyant master pianist Liberace, is getting a limited release in UK cinemas from today, and it's well worth checking out. Scott is introduced to Liberace, or Lee, in 1977, and soon becomes employed as his live-in companion. Despite his protestations of bisexuality, he's soon seduced by the older man, and becomes comfortable in the lifestyle afforded by mega-stardom. The film focuses on their relationship over the course of almost ten years, as Scott strays into substance abuse, and Lee constantly struggles to preserve his youth.

The film is just a tiny bit fabulous, to use an adjective that's perhaps a little obvious, yet entirely appropriate. Liberace's life has been the subject of a passion project for Soderbergh for over a decade, and he first asked Michael Douglas to play the part back in 2000, when they worked on Traffic. Perhaps the reason why Douglas' performance is so good is that it has essentially been 13 years in the making- he's astonishing in this role. As part of the audience who isn't familiar with Liberace's persona, (barring his guest appearance on Batman) I was completely bowled over by how much he commits to it.

I'd say the same of Matt Damon, who plays Scott- he really serves as the straight man (oh, I went there) to balance a much bigger performance, but as he's essentially our way into Liberace's world, he more than holds his own against Douglas. It's not just bold in the way that some will call heterosexual actors "bold" for appearing in gay sex scenes. Neither actor leaves anything on the table. Elsewhere, Dan Aykroyd is so good as to be almost unrecognisable as Liberace's manager, Seymour- it was ages before I even twigged it was him.

It's technically incredible too, with some truly spectacular make-up and costume work. Ellen Mirojnick's costume design stands out, even though everybody wearing her work is firing on all cylinders, and the make-up department is put to great use once the film gets into the area of cosmetic enhancements. Damon and Douglas both find their characters augmented by Rob Lowe's sinister, plastic-faced plastic surgeon, who comes off as a kind of Dr. Voldemort. This section of the film is also memorable for Richard LaGravenese's witty scripting, which finds drama in addictive slimming pills, and comedy in a face-lift treatment that leaves Lee unable to close his eyes, snoring and staring.

Like Douglas' performance, the comedy isn't played up too much, or over-played, which lends to the sense of even-handed biography. Even though LaGravenese's angle on Liberace comes from Scott Thorson, there's no letting him off the hook in pursuit of Hollywood convention. A film dictated by Hollywood studio notes might have seen young Scott, who wants to be a vet and still likes girls, being corrupted by lure of the lifestyle and cheaply reformed by the end. But Liberace gets his say too- Soderbergh foreshadows later troubles at Scott's very first meeting with the star, in a five-way dialogue scene that only focuses on the glances between three characters; Lee, Scott, and Lee's then-companion. The latter, an older man than Scott, rolls his eyes cynically throughout the scene. When that exchange is mirrored later in the film, you're forced to consider other perspectives too.

In the latter part of the film, there is much made of Lee's planned appearance on the 1981 Academy Awards, presenting the Oscar for Best Score. The irony there is that in a world where the studios hadn't been so squeamish about making this movie, (apparently, it was "too gay") it almost certainly would have been headed to next year's Oscars, for its achievements in acting and design, but the fact that it eventually came from HBO should probably point that way for Soderbergh's post-cinematic career. The notion of him doing a TV series is intriguing to say the least, but as with Side Effects, my reigning favourite film of the year so far, the film fan in me wants him to keep at it on the big screen too.

With Behind The Candelabra, it seems that Soderbergh's prolonged retirement period, which has coloured most of my reviews of the director's films for the last two years, has finally come to an end. This has always been marked as his final film project, even if it's not getting a cinema release in the States. As the final note in a crescendo that has included a diverse and routinely excellent array of features, it can only leave you wanting more. But on its own terms, it's also a superb biopic, rising far above the standard for such films with an even-handed and glamorous take on a story which could so easily have been simply embalmed in glitz and nostalgia.

Behind The Candelabra is now showing in selected UK cinemas.
If you've seen Behind The Candelabra, why not share your comments below? For added fun, pretend that Scott Bakula is actually Sam Beckett here- his appearances are sporadic enough that he could be off talking to Al when he's not on-screen...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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