By Alan Mattli
For a man who prefers not to put his name on movie posters or front credits, Steven Soderbergh sure knows how to get people talking about him. Ever since late 2011, when he announced his retirement from directing to pursue a career in painting (he later retracted the statement and announced a prolonged “sabbatical”), every one of his new films, of which there were five, excluding a made-for-TV documentary, was met with a level of attention the like of which the Hollywood maverick has probably not seen since his string of critically and commercially acclaimed features at the turn of the millennium (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven).
This heightened interest in his work arguably peaked this year; first with the release of the psychological thriller/melodrama Side Effects, where he combined the Hitchcockian with the Almodóvaresque, the ruthlessly efficient with the (sometimes) intriguingly camp; followed by the Cannes premiere of Behind the Candelabra, a television biopic about the piano virtuoso Liberace, made for the American network HBO – Soderbergh’s last foray into feature-length filmmaking (for now).
To compare these two 2013 releases would be a rather fruitless endeavour as they do not share a great deal of similarities, save for Soderbergh’s distinctive style, which he maintains by serving not only as a director on his projects but as editor and cinematographer as well. Suffice to say that Behind the Candelabra is the more sustained and ultimately superior film, largely because it does not collapse in its third act, as Side Effects did in quite spectacular fashion.
It is interesting to note, however, that Soderbergh’s treatment of Liberace, written by Richard LaGravenese, is in fact less stringently realised as his artistically accomplished diatribe against ataractics. Focusing on the last ten years (1977–1987) in the life of Vladziu Valentino Liberace (magnificently portrayed by Michael Douglas), the film is, in accordance with its almost bipolar main character, subject to sudden switches in mode and mood. What starts out as a seemingly straightforward biographical drama soon morphs into a sardonic black comedy, which in turn turns into something akin to a tender romance.
The audience sees Liberace mainly through the eyes of self-professed bisexual Scott Thorson, who is 17 years old when he first meets the anything-but-openly homosexual Las Vegas piano sensation. Even though the 42-year-old Matt Damon never quite manages to look the part, his dedicated acting, helped by the remarkable efforts of the movie’s Emmy-winning makeup department, makes his performance not just believable but thoroughly engaging. Following their first backstage encounter, the two strike up a bizarre relationship, in which Liberace serves, as he puts it, as “father, brother, lover, and best friend” to the orphaned Scott, who is later ever so gently forced to undergo plastic surgery in order to be transformed into the grotesque younger double of the aging pianist (Liberace himself commits to an equally grotesque face lift after the shocking experience of seeing himself on television has left him devastated: “I look like my father in drag!”).
One of the reasons why Behind the Candelabra works as well as it does is the interplay between its two protagonists, which is considerably enriched by the performances of Damon and particularly Douglas. They flawlessly navigate LaGravenese’s multi-layered, often wryly funny script, whose dialogues’ self-reflexive flamboyance at times veers dangerously close towards self-parody and, even worse, the realms of yesteryear’s queer “sissy” comedy. But even when LaGravenese’s writing threatens to turn Liberace – who, one must admit, was a man of hopelessly clichéd gay exuberance, despite suing anyone who claimed he belonged to the LGBT community – into a pure caricature, Douglas, with his highly nuanced acting, finds the bruised humanity in this ultimately tragic bigger-than-life figure. Liberace is, however, in the unexpectedly sincere final sequence, nonetheless granted an appropriately camp kind of apotheosis.
As an example of Soderbergh’s considerable abilities as a filmmaker, meanwhile, the film is a near-perfect showcase. The over-stylised, hyper-kitschy mise en scène, shot almost entirely with the director’s trademark soft focus lens, eloquently captures the stifling atmosphere of Liberace’s stuffed, pastel-coloured mansion (which seems to anticipate the burglarised star villas in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring), in which most of the movie is set. Harsh cuts both symbolise and underline the maestro’s frustrating, unforgiving mood swings; the expert lighting creates an extremely effective mood. Behind the Candelabra is by no means an exceptional film but it is undoubtedly the work of a Hollywood professional in every sense of the word; a director with a clear and rigorous vision, which permeates every genre, every subject matter, and every studio constraint. If Soderbergh’s sabbatical should prove permanent, it would be Hollywood’s – and our – loss.
★★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.