That Steven Soderbergh had to go to cable TV channel HBO to finance Behind the Candelabra, his long-gestating biopic of late-period Liberace, is symptomatic of the caution that surrounds the current Hollywood production system: if you have to go to cable to finance a risqué tale that would otherwise be Academy Award fodder, starring two bona fide film stars, directed by a proven helmer and with a producer with a track record, what hope would there be today for something such as Brokeback Mountain?

     In all fairness, you ought to not go into Behind the Candelabra expecting a traditional biopic, though the director does wink at it knowledgeably every now and then. It's not unlikely that the big issue the studios had with Mr. Soderbergh's film was the open outing of Liberace's gaudy, out-and-out camp as an acceptable form of homosexuality. But for the director it's very clear the homosexuality per se is not an issue. There's an obvious throughline from Behind the Candelabra to many of his recent movies, dealing with the commodification of affection, love as a currency - see The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike, to a lesser extent Side Effects. In this tale of the love affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and foster kid Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Mr. Soderbergh tells the tale of a glamorous entertainer who literally seduces his lovers through his wealth and fame, only to discard them when they start chafing at being mere possessions, but also of a lonely man who thinks he will be loved only if he pays for that love, who mistakes love for possession; it's a classic tale of people (male or female) looking for love in the wrong places that has been told so many times in Hollywood. (This makes it even stranger that Hollywood would have recoiled at financing a tale it has told, in many different guises, throughout the years.)

     Mr. Douglas is an uncannily reptilian Liberace, equal parts charm and steel, superbly channeling into the entertainer an effete but equally predatory version of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko. Mr. Damon plays up the innocence of a young man led astray, even if he is not as innocent as he seems or likes to be (he does take personal advantage of the pleasures the pianist's wealth allows him). Mr. Soderbergh shoots, frames and edits everything in his clinically detached mode, creating a peculiar distance between Richard la Gravenese's classically-designed melodrama about the rise and fall of a love affair (if a peculiar one) - and that dispassionate take on a love affair that was less dispassionate than it may seem at first seems perfectly apt for the cheap, cardboard and tinsel make-believe of casino entertainment. The idea is to show the two sides - and that is something Mr. Soderbergh has always done very well. That such a film should be deemed too leftfield for theatrical audiences in the US beggars belief - no wonder the director has decided to turn his back on theatrical feature films for now.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Debbie Reynolds
Director, cinematographer (as Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard): Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Richard la Gravenese, from the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson
Musical director: Marvin Hamlisch
Designer: Howard Cummings
Costumes: Ellen Mirojnick
Producer: Jerry Weintraub (HBO Films and JW Productions)
USA, 2013, 118 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, August 5th 2013


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