Something hit me in Behind the Candelabra. It was during a scene of little importance, just a few men walking into a room and looking around. This wasn’t an epiphany, as I’ve discussed it many times before, but during the scene, I was reminded that Steven Soderbergh knows what to do.
He knows precisely what to do with his camera while a few men walk into a room and look around. He knows what to do when one of his characters is binging hard on cocaine. He knows what film stock to use, or what digital camera to shoot with. He knows what filter to apply, what composition to implore, what audio track to highlight. He knows when to tell his story straight, or jump around playfully. Above all, Steven Soderbergh knows how to make a film. He’s a master craftsman whose work in the medium has forever changed it. Which makes it all the sadder that we’re now forced to bid him farewell.
Behind the Candelabra is Soderbergh’s glitzy and stylish take on the last decade of Liberace’s life. In 1977, Liberace (Michael Douglas) was at the height of his lasting fame, churning out two gigs a night at a packed Las Vegas showroom. Crooning, playing piano, schmoozing with the crowd, and so on. Around this time, he met Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), an animal trainer working in the film business. Soon after meeting, Liberace invited Scott to move into his lavish Vegas mansion and live as his partner. Partner in sex, in comfort, in career – life partner in the truest sense. Liberace gently demanded all or nothing, and Scott welcomingly chose the former.
It only takes a few years for things to go wrong. Fame soon gets the best of Scott, or rather, what Liberace’s fame affords. Drugs fuel paranoia, alcohol motivates frustration, diminished sex life propels jealousy. We relish when they’re up, and lament when they’re down.
Behind the Candelabra proves to be a gently paced biopic that lives up to the massive hype HBO created through extensive marketing. According to Soderbergh, the film was deemed “too gay” by every film studio, so HBO swept in and offered produce and distribute it on television. Good enough. Behind the Candelabra is a worthy match to any narrative feature HBO has ever released. It also stands well against Soderbergh’s other fantastic pictures in his impressively prolific career.
As Liberace, Douglas conveys a festive, anguished man who loved living, but dreaded cruelty. As a man of exquisite taste and hyperbolic style, Liberace only wished his emotional life could mimic his façade. It’s the best performance Douglas has given since Soderbergh’s Traffic, and will certainly be remembered as one of the finest he ever delivers. His only remaining task is to manage some variety in his (many) upcoming awards speeches.
Equally impressive (and I chose the word “equally” with confidence) is Matt Damon, who delivers a near career-best performance as the tormented Scott. Once Scott started slipping down the path I expected him to, I feared that Damon’s performance would turn into the same old song. Drugs, rage, hate, greed. That’s all here, but with a fresh spin. I’ve seen most every performance Matt Damon has given, and I’ve never seen him do what he does here. I hope his work isn’t lost next to Douglas’ flashier effort.
And, as is always the case with Soderbergh’s films, the supporting cast is fleshed out to perfection. Namely Rob Lowe, who shows up in a handful of wonderful scenes as Liberace’s longtime plastic surgeon. I read that Lowe endured two hours of daily makeup for the part. Great effort all around, because believe me, the way this guy looks will have you rolling. But remember: makeup is a great facilitator for making us believe, but acting is in the eyes. I could watch what Lowe does here all day.
But, of course, the real star of Behind the Candelabra is Steven Soderbergh himself.
|Soderbergh and Douglas on set|
Following the lengthy battle to get his masterful epic, Che, produced and distributed, Soderbergh promised that in five years time, he would conclude making feature films. Well, five years and seven films later, it appears he is doing just that. He says he’s done with the system. Done with the politics, the corporate structure – just done. And, as I consider him to be one of the finest talents to ever hold a movie camera, I take Soderbergh’s self-imposed retirement as a great loss. Film won’t be the same without him. (Hope: He recently signed on to produce and direct a new show for Cinemax.) But, if this is indeed the end, Behind the Candelabra is a perfectly appropriate film to conclude his career. With the light shinning bright on Soderbergh’s back, as he graciously takes a bow to the ecstatic crowd before him. A-