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Review: Douglas and Damon Shine in Soderbergh’s Funny, Poignant Melodrama ‘Behind the Candelabra’

Review: Douglas and Damon Shine in Soderbergh's Funny, Poignant Melodrama 'Behind the Candelabra'

The Cannes Film Festival accorded Steven Soderbergh’s lush period melodrama “Behind the Candelabra” a prime competition slot (his fourth) for a reason. While it’s not the first time an HBO movie has played in the mainbar (Stephen Hopkins’ “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” was in competition in 2004), it will be Soderbergh’s last, if he sticks to his planned retirement from making films.

With “Behind the Candelabra,” the 50-year-old filmmaker is coming full circle at Cannes. He landed in competition with his first film in 1989, “sex lies and videotape,” even though it had played Sundance, and took home the Palme d’Or. “It’s not often you get the opportunity to arrange that kind of
symmetry,” Soderbergh told The Huffington Post. “It’s funny to think
about how long ago that was.”

If “Behind the Candelabra” is his final film, it’s a winner, easily among the best of his 26 features including Cannes contenders “King of the Hill” (1993) and the six-hour, two part “Che” (2008) as well as “Erin Brockovich,” “Out of Sight,” the lucrative “Ocean’s” franchise and “Traffic,” for which he won the best director Oscar.

Soderbergh is back in top form with “Behind the Candelabra,” which debuts at Cannes on Tuesday and on HBO on May 26, even though he recently complained that he could not get Richard LaGravenese’s well-drawn Liberace script, which was originally developed at Warner Bros., made as a studio movie because it was “too gay.” During his well-publicized San Francisco Film Festival keynote speech, Soderbergh claimed that the studio numbers crunchers dictated that the movie needed to make $70 million. In this case, while the adaptable maverick has many legitimate complaints about the way the movie business works these days–or doesn’t–the film turned out well on a modest HBO scale.

HBO jumped in to fund the $22.8 million movie when producer Jerry Weintraub was working with them on his documentary “My Way.”  Soderbergh’s designers seem to spare no expense in creating “Lee” Liberace’s lavishly appointed Las Vegas settings, ornate stage shows, overscale high-collared fluffy costumes and royally kitschy palatial interiors. “Lee thinks he’s Ludwig the Second,” quips one observer.

But the movie is at heart a two-hander, an intimate love story between
older flamboyant pianist showman (Michael Douglas) and his younger
lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It is neither too big nor too small.
It feels just right. It was shot in 30 days–five fewer than “sex lies
and videotape.”

“I love to give people a good time,” Liberace croons to Thorson. He points out his
mansion’s Ionic columns, saying, “I do my own decorating.” He seduces
Scott with champagne and bubbles in his gold hot tub, and pads around
his mansion in a gaudy caftan and gold slippers, throwing away lines
like “I personally support the Austrian rhinestone business.” His
drycleaned costumes almost kill him until he figures out that his
kidneys can’t handle the deadly mix of sweat and tetrachloride.

Soderbergh was able to lick the issue of how to tackle bling-inventor Liberace–a role he had long talked with “Traffic” star Douglas about playing–when he was tipped to Thorson’s memoir. That gave the biopic a limited 1977-1983 time frame. Both actors masterfully navigate a tricky dance between comedic exterior showmanship and sexually-charged, often painful scenes in the boudoir. You believe that the two men love each other, but the powerful rich performer subjugates and manipulates his younger, needy and more naive partner, by making the initially starstruck dog handler and would-be veterinarian a dependent member of his support staff, as assistant, chauffeur and part of his act. Carlucci the tight-butted houseboy, passing a tray of pigs in a
blanket, warns the new recruit that he won’t last long.

The besotted Thorson ditches his dull but stable foster parents for a man who calls him his “baby boy.” Liberace says to him, “I want to be everything to you, father, brother and lover, best friend, everything. Maybe I’m your real family.” (As an indefatigable lover, Liberace confounds the younger man with his staying power. “Implants,” he explains.) He eventually offers to
adopt Scott, makes him undergo plastic surgery to look just like him,
and buys him a home. Thorson hangs in for six years.

His shiny-faced plastic surgeon and Dr. Feelgood (Rob Lowe) gets him hooked on diet stimulants so that Thorson will continue to impress in his mini-speedo. He moves on to stronger stuff, needless to say, which is where the film is hijacked by an inevitable showbiz descent trajectory. But by the end, both Douglas and Damon are heartbreaking, and a dowdy Debbie Reynolds resonates as Liberace’s clinging, angry, neglected mother. “Everyone wants a piece of me,” Liberace complains. “I give and give and give.”

There’s an undertow to the film’s message, Soderbergh has admitted. In another era, Liberace could have married, like Elton John.  And in another decade, this movie would be up for Oscars, not Emmys.

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