Steven Soderbergh has for years been a director who continues to work entirely in spite of himself; he presses on, releasing a film a year (if not more) while constantly expressing frustration with the industry and claiming that his next will be his last. With his latest effort – a production from the increasingly prestigious HBO Films banner – it appears that the director might finally be sticking to his word, and if so, he goes out with quite the belter to his name. Doing huge justice to the oft-sneered at TV film delegation, Behind the Candelabra is a studious project shot through with the high production quality, dedicated craftsmanship and superior acting of a great theatrical feature, and went down a storm at this morning’s world premiere.
Soderbergh trains his focus on the final decade of Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life, from meeting his most prolific lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) to his eventual death from AIDS. After a chance encounter backstage, the two embark on a whirlwind romance that sees each confide more in each other than they ever have another person. Of course, complications inevitably arise, but their bond is one that endures at different levels right to the singer’s final deathbed conversation with Scott.
What Soderbergh’s film succeeds in doing perhaps above all else is depicting the man in all of his flamboyance yet without deigning to caricature. The Liberace we see here is camp as Christmas but also thoroughly charming, while not beyond showing off his more human side away from the theatrics of his musical Vegas shows. It is largely a credit to Richard LaGravenese‘s witty script and two marvelous central performance that the film works as well as it does.
While packed with laughs, it also doesn’t dare avoid the less-pleasant side of the legend’s story, from the everyday travails of Lee (Liberace’s home name) and Scott’s not-so-normal relationship, to the insidious elements that creep in later. These include Lee’s obsession with getting Scott to have plastic surgery to look more like a young version of himself (a means of extending his own legacy?), Lee’s bizarre decision to adopt him (while still conducting a relationship with him), and Scott’s later drug addiction. Soderbergh also ensures to examine the sexual mores of the two characters in unexpectedly raw detail for a TV movie (or at least our expectation of one), and he doesn’t shy away from scenes of Lee and Scott’s love-making as many other filmmakers would.
The prime point of talk for the film will surely be Douglas’ superb performance in the lead role, easily the actor’s best in years, and were the film not automatically disqualified from Oscar contention for airing on TV prior to a theatrical release, his name would certainly be in the Best Actor conversation. From the opening moments in which we observe him playing the piano at a pace of 16-bars, the actor is wholly convincing, capturing the unique mannerisms of the man as well as his general aura exceedingly well. Douglas’ performance helps paint Lee as a sweet but often sad, lonely man who had a deep, aching humanism beneath his flamboyant persona.
While Douglas gives the obviously show-stealing performance, every knockout turn needs a firm supporting role to go with it, and Damon fits the bill perfectly – despite being considerably older than Scott – in an initially more subdued role that becomes more interesting in the second half as Scott becomes a slave to the throes of addiction. In other supporting roles, Rob Lowe is an absolute riot as the plastic surgeon who, going by his own peculiar countenance, is himself an addict to the surgery, and Dan Akroyd – who is scarcely recognizable at first – is a hoot in a small turn as Lee’s lawyer.
Crafts services are also mightily impressive and would similarly be courting Academy Award attention if not for the aforementioned proviso; particularly startling are the make-up effects (especially to make Douglas seem younger, and then later to convey his being afflicted by AIDS), costume design (Lee’s ridiculous outfits are an excessive delight), and the overall production design, which evokes the period supremely well.
Perhaps one of the best-directed TV movies in the form’s history, Behind the Candelabra sees Soderbergh ending his generally strong run of pictures with an unexpected corker, one that surely would have touted year-end awards consideration if not for the prohibitive – and frankly, ridiculous – Academy Award rules. If this really is the end of the road for Soderbergh, then what a class act to finish on.
The Upside: Direction is as pristine and visually sumptuous as we’ve come to expect from the director; the two central performances are particularly outstanding; supporting turns are also luminous.
The Downside: It’s arguably a little too long; by its nature won’t appeal to more casual audiences
On the Side: Soderbergh acts as DP on all of his films, though uses the pseudonym Peter Andrews