Behind the Candelabra (2013) Directed by Steven Soderbergh



Nick:
It's been an age since me and Astrid have been able to go and watch a movie together. My suggestions of White House Down or Pacific Rim didn't fit the criteria to what nowadays feels like a full blown romantic date when we go out. The new WA picture Blue Jasmine is interesting, but I need a Woody break. So we ended up catching, what in all likelihood will be the last Steven Soderbergh directed film, Behind The Candelabra, a biopic on the twilight years of genial pianist Liberace. Soderbergh has struck me as a weird fish. He's managed to retain credibility of sorts, whilst making fairly commercial fair. When he gets that blend right (Sex, Lies & Videotape, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean's Eleven) you wonder why he hasn't been even more successful. Probably because he's retained the quirky choices of projects he's directed, which is to be admired. My personal fave of his films is his much derided Solaris remake (how dare he!) Solaris is one of the weirdest mainstream constructs of recent years. Happily, Soderbergh goes out on a high with Behind The Candelabra.

This is a very talky relationship film. It focuses on Liberace's relationship with the much younger Scott Thorson (whose book this is loosely based on). It's a hidden love tryst that covers many years – with the sleazy 1970's still not being able to handle the gay taboo. Many clues to Liberace's sexuality are in his gaudy, repulsively tacky costume performances where the queer naturalness that Liberace embodies oozes out of his piano keys. It really is, as the film suggest, a wonder that audience never cottoned on. The lead performances from Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson are excellent. Damon overplays the gay stereotype a touch at times but it adds a little sense of fun to proceedings. Having such hetero screen stars is of course part of the appeal and must have been at the back of Soderbergh's mind whilst casting. Luckily the movie does steer clear of any pantomime camping on the part of the actors. These guys play it straight. Special mention goes to Rob Lowe as a crazy pill popping plastic surgeon, a turn played mostly for laughs.

Yes, we get a taste of Liberace's vociferous appetite for young boys (he would be well into his 50's when the movie takes place) and the excess in clothes and lavish tasteless furniture. We also get the drug addictions that seem to appear in all films about this time period. But what makes Behind The Candelabra work are the intimate scenes between Douglas and Damon, they are believable and give us a down-to-earth, credible look at their relationship. It adds substance to the inevitable crash that comes Thorson's way. I would have liked to have seen some more acknowledgement of Liberace's incredible piano skills, but there really isn't much to fault here. At the end of  Behind The Candelabra there is a sense of Soderbergh giving us his goodbyes, which he channels through a larger than life Liberace. An enjoyable film which should appeal to the masses and hopefully gives another little nudge to changing people's attitudes. A compulsory viewing for Mr Putin is necessary but one wonders if that would probably be, on current evidence, a bit too confusing for him.

Astrid:
I don't understand the meaning and purpose of dividing people into generations. I'm not a gen X, I know that. But I don't think that definitions of gen Y apply to me either. It's like there is a whole decade of people who didn't get to be defined because gen X guys still thought they were young enough to define everything. I'm in that gap generation, the gen 00 who spent their 20s worrying about what comes after 9/11. And who slip and slide between and through definitions. Also, I'm in a long relationship that has lasted well over a decade now with a man 16 years older than me. That makes me a freak anywhere except in Hollywood.

Oh well, Liberace had relationships and affairs with men much younger and older than him all his life. And everybody loved him (some even thought he was straight). One of those loves of his life was Scott Thorson, the focus of Soderbergh's 'last movie'. I enjoyed Behind the Candelabra, it made me laugh, it made me smile, I had a good time. It didn't make me cry at all though and that was a little bit disappointing. Throughout the film I was waiting for things to get really heavy. In a way they did: Liberace was awful to his closest people. Scott had to have plastic surgery to look like Liberace, he had to give up any notion of a life of his own. What little ties he had to his foster family, he gave up almost completely to become Liberace's son, lover, husband, servant and copy. And in the end Liberace threw him out. But Soderbergh didn't turn on the drama there. He allowed crazy things to happen without over-emotionalizing. Bravo. Or oh no? I'm not sure.

Time to celebrate: this was a gay film. Hollywood big guys with distinctly hetero identities played lovers. There were no ifs or buts. They had sex, they had a relationship and they were pretty convincing throughout. At times I felt uncomfortable about the feeling that the audience is watching these hetero men act gay and saluting them for the daring. As if the whole film was wearing hetero spectacles. Is being gay really such an issue in 2013? But it is. It is so much so that although the audience was filled with ladies in their 50s having a good time, the absence of men of that same generation was clear. Homophobia is not some funny little past particle in Finland or in Hollywood. It's not just Russia were being gay is a crime again. So lets forgive the clich├ęs and stereotypes, the overacting and the under-representation once again. Slowly, the world will be a better place for us all, I hope.

Comments

  1. I have not seen this film, but I did see Solaris... a number of times.

    I have watched Soderbergh's and Tarkovsky's each at least 5 times, and they do not grow old.

    Things continue to surprise me, I wander off into my own scenarios within each movie, the characters are bloody fantastic - I mean Viola Davis has not come close to her work in Solaris.

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  2. thanks for the comment Montag. Thoughtful as ever!

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