If Steven Soderbergh finally follows through on his threat to stop directing films, then his HBO adaptation of the Liberace tell-all, Behind the Candelabra, would make a stellar curtain closer for his prolific career. The film is nominated for 15 Emmy awards (the ceremony is this Sunday), including Best Actor nods for Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, and nominations for Soderbergh as director, and as editor and director of photography (under pseudonyms Mary Ann Bernard and Peter Andrews, respectively).
From 1998 to 2002, Soderbergh directed and shot a string of excellent pictures, including Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven and his masterful, under-appreciated reworking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Since then, he’s been a bit of a puzzle. Experimenting with forms, indifferent to results, content to churn out subpar work. Missable curios such as Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant! and most recently, Side Effects, were marred by Soderbergh’s hasty assemblage and a smug disinterest in the audience experience. One had to wonder why he still bothered with moviemaking. Even his better efforts, Contagion and Magic Mike, have an aloof, disposable air about them. But then along comes Behind the Candelabra.
In less assured hands, this 1980’s tale of Liberace’s five-year romance with his assistant, Scott Thorson, would have been played for high camp or tawdry pathos, a seamy glimpse behind the scenes of the famously closeted queen, with all the sex, drugs, and leather-clad boytoys the piano player’s riches could buy. There are elements of all that in this film. Glitter and gold and fluffy poodles. Hot tubs and facelifts and gaudy cars. Liberace’s sexual needs were in the closet but his flamboyance never was.
Soderbergh accepts all of this with a casual, clever shrug. He is not out to demean or humiliate Liberace or his boyfriend. He refuses to poke easy fun at the tacky, overwrought effluvia of their world. Instead, he plays it straight, crafting a witty and delicately perceptive film about a love that dared not, and did not, speak its name. Liberace and Thorson were years apart in age, but they shared a loneliness each tried to soothe in the other. Their pillow talk is fascinating, even heartwarming, an intimate sharing of secrets. It’s no wonder Thorson was willing to do anything for his lover/employer, the father/mother he never had. The weird stuff — reconstructive surgery, diet pills, the Sgt. Pepper-type stage outfits — was only weird if you were on the outside looking in.
In Michael Douglas's warm and sensitive performance, Liberace is a likeable, vulnerable narcissist, blessed with a calculated dose of self-amusing kitsch. One can understand how this bejeweled, one-note artist managed to captivate an audience of boob tube admirers and tourist housewives. Damon, playing well below his 40-plus years, interprets Thorson as a naïve and malleable kid brother. He was struck dumb by love, for awhile, but smart enough to know Liberace would dump him in a second if he didn’t trust him with his feelings. Douglas and Damon deliver a remarkably tender and accessible portrait of a relationship doomed from the outset by advancing age and transient desires. To their credit, and their director’s, their kisses and post-coital caresses are underplayed and matter-of-fact. The one soft-core sex scene is briefly framed as a knowing, subtle wink to the audience. Think of any of our alpha-male mega-stars in the same position (say, Brad Pitt humping Clint Eastwood), and you’ll get the idea.
If you’re aware of Liberace’s story you’ll know there isn’t a happy ending to Behind the Candelabra. He died of AIDS and Thorson continues to struggle with sexual identity, drugs and petty crimes. The time he spent with his lover, his mentor, his manipulator, seems so long ago and so very far away. The film is not meant to resonate with any deeper meanings, except the idea that for a brief time in these two men’s lives they shared the kind of intimate, mundanely normal bond necessary for any kind of love. Soderbergh’s triumph is in telling this story with the kind of panache and showmanship Liberace himself would have applauded.
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