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Review: Steven Soderbergh's Joyously Gay Behind The Candelabra

By Caspar Salmon | Film Reviews | May 22, 2013 | Comments ()


Liberace.jpg

Steven Soderbergh's new film, Behind the Candelabra, which premiered at Cannes and debuts on HBO on Sunday, is an object lesson in team effort. The whole collaborative nature of filmmaking is there on the screen to behold in the exquisite sets, costumes and make-up most of all, as these are the surface attraction of this joyously gay film. But the performances of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, the entertaining and touching script by Richard LaGravenese, and the feather-light directorial touch of Soderbergh all add up to make Behind The Candelabra a rich, rewarding film.

Scott Thorson (played in the film by Matt Damon) was one of the last in a string of nubile men to be the lover of famed piano-meddler Liberace (Michael Douglas), and the film is based on the book he wrote about living as a sort of paid companion to this older, eccentric man. The script drawn from his book is a minor miracle of generous storytelling, giving equal weight to both Thorson and Lee (as Liberace was known to his entourage). It is a story about what the men give to each other, the rewards they find in each other's company. Thorson gets recognition, riches and a tender family life from Lee; in return, the musician gets the happiness of sex and love, and the pleasure that it gives him to lavish care and attention on someone. The script treads a very careful line between seeking out the inherent hilarity of Liberace -- a hugely camp, bejewelled egomaniac with a monstrous tendency to dominate his lovers, and a wish to remodel them in his own image -- and revealing the humanity in him. This is the "behind" bit of the title: we see the heart of the man as well, his kindness and his weaknesses: his constant quest is for happiness and love.

Thorson has, if anything, the bigger role in the film: the daughter to Michael Douglas' Mommie Dearest, as it were. Matt Damon plays him with his usual sensitivity, taking added delight in his transformation from country lunk into lustrous show-poney. His chemistry with Douglas feels warm and lived-in; they have, after the early seduction scenes, an easy feel in their moments together, a sweet body language in each other's presence. In the scenes where the couple falls out, Damon articulates all the hurt and rejection of his character, and how lost and helpless he is without his Pygmalion. Michael Douglas, in the showier role, plays Liberace for the right amount of laughter, looking on the hilarious side of fabulous in an eye-watering array of capes, gowns, rhinestone suits and tiny shorts. He shows Liberace's contradictions extremely well: his Catholicism and voracious sexual appetite, his look-at-me public persona and fairly simple, kind outlook towards his loved ones.

The film is classical in its composition: the director's vision never intrudes on the story, and this for me represents the film's strength and its weakness at once. Everything is tightly put together, the lighting exactly right and the camera always positioned just so, making this a delicately executed, sensitive work. But I could have wished, perhaps, for a less "straight" -- in the original sense of the word -- take on the topic. I would have liked to see more artistic audacity, a less literal engagement with the film's events. There is a scene right at the end in which Soderbergh allows himself to spin a little fantasy sequence, which is perfectly done: it captures in a much more elliptic way the nature of Thorson and Liberace's relationship.

The story, too, follows a rather square set pattern, detailing the relationship from beginning to end with the arc you would expect: mutual discovery, domestic bliss, problems, arguments, split and closure, in that order. We've seen this sort of thing in A Star Is Born, say; it's a convention of films about showbusiness. I wonder if the picture might not have been better with a soupçon of Liberace's gaudiness in its technical construction.
These are my only quibbles with this very solid film, which contains so much great stuff: the cameos for instance, from Debbie Reynolds as Liberace's mother to Rob Lowe, camping it up as the ruthless plastic surgeon. Matt Damon's Brazilian tan-line makes perhaps the best cameo of all, stealing a scene at the end of an argument. The couple of showbiz moments are well done, and the script has some powerful zingers, which help the whole thing romp along nicely.

After the zest and fizz of the scenes chez Liberace, the film retreats into a quieter mode, making the most of the emotion at its heart. It concludes well, on a note of pathos totally devoid of sentiment. If it is to be Soderbergh's last film, it is a touching farewell.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Homestar

    I really do want to see this, and I'm glad to hear it's good, but is anyone else tired of straight actors playing gay men?

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    Was just having this discussion with friends while watching the trailer for Liberace. They were heterosexual males, with (recently more common) socially liberal leanings. One of them said he thinks that the use of straight actors in flamboyantly gay roles is on purpose, because hetero males are able to say "they are just acting", and therefore feel less 'queasy' when watching overtly homosexual acts.

    I found the logic very counterintuitive, but it was backed up by others.

  • Caspar

    I think that's a very insightful point, and I'm sure there's some truth in it.

  • BiblioGlow

    I'm tired of neither straight actors portraying gay characters nor gay actors portraying straight characters. I am, however, extremely uncomfortable with the idea of casting decisions being made based on sexual orientation.

  • Homestar

    I'm not saying those decisions should be based on sexual orientation.

  • delle

    Your comment made me pause and think, as personally I haven't felt tired of seeing straight men play gay characters.

    Additionaly, when I see gay men play straight characters I've never wondered why they didn't choose a heterosexual to take on the role, I just assume that what an actor is able to bring to that particular role is their ability to interpret and portray that character's personality, emotions, etc, which I don't believe is necessarily related to how similar they are to each other in reality. I've seen actors portray characters of different cultures, religions, political and moral beliefs than their own, and unless they do a poor acting job I don't tend to stop and wonder why they didn't choose someone more similar to the character. The only time I have a problem is when they use makeup to make an actor appear as a person of a different ethnicity...and when actors portray characters of a different culture and absolutely mangle the accent.

    I'm curious to hear what other people think; are gays bothered by this? Should I be more bothered by it? How much overlap should there be? In what instances are we offended or put off by casting decisions? Most people would probably shrug at a Catholic actor portaying a Buddist character or vice versa, but what about a Jewish actor portraying a Nazi, for instance? It's an interesting question I've not really considered.

  • Homestar

    I agree with you that an actor's ability doesn't have anything to do with their sexuality. I think that's a really stupid argument, and I wasn't trying to make it. My initial thought was that I would just like to see more opportunities for openly gay actors in general, and by giving these really great roles to straight men (e.g., Milk), the options for gay actors are diminished even more. But now I'm thinking that I'd be curious to see what the dynamic might be between two gay male actors in this movie. Is it possible they'd bring something more, or different? We've seen a lot of gay actors play straight men, and a lot of straight actors play gay men, all convincingly, so I don't have a problem with the performances. It's just, why not hire two gay actors to play gay men?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Well, for one thing, it's against the law to cast someone on the basis of sexual orientation. For another, straight actors taking gay roles doesn't decrease gay actors' opportunities, because gay actors can play straight roles.

    But fear not - gay men have had plenty of leading roles...on stage (and these are just some you're likely to have heard of!)
    http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=...
    http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=...
    http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=...
    http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=...
    http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=...
    http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=...

  • delle

    Sara_Tonin00, I am curious now and thus will display my vast ignorance because I have seen you to be a knowledgeable person on this site, you mentioned it would be against the law to cast based on sexual orientation, I was wondering if there are differences in laws concerning hiring for actors and hiring for other jobs. What I mean is, it's illegal to hire an administrative assistant based on whether they're male or female, but isn't casting done on basis of gender? I'm just wondering now if it is a legal right for movie people to refuse to hire a woman who auditioned for a part as a man. It probably never happens because it makes little sense but I'm curious now if someone would be legally able to refuse them if they pressed the matter.

    But then I told a client not an hour ago that the heat has addled my brain today. Feel free to tell me to go soak my head in ice water..lol

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It comes down to the opinion of those running the show/movie/commercial as to who can best do the job, which is subjective. It is essentially illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, or race, even in theater. So you will never see a [well thought out] lawsuit against a theater for casting a white man as Othello. You will hear an outcry, though (like the famous casting of Jonathan Pryce as an Asian pimp in Miss Saigon.) - and there's nothing wrong with that.

    If the description of the job includes being able to convincingly play a white woman, it's ok to reject applicants with adam apples. Just like you could opt not to hire a paraplegic to play a gymnast in your movie. However, you, as an employer, can decide to go above and beyond to accommodate someone who meets some of your requirements - hiring a male for a female part, prosthetics, etc.

    Casting notices should describe characters, rather than desired attributes in the performers. "looking for white actresses 30-40" is not ok; "Marya is a 30 year old Caucasian lawyer" is.

    You can get a more legalese explanation here:
    http://www.bizjournals.com/sea...

  • Homestar

    This is all true. I certainly wouldn't condone using sexual orientation as a factor for casting anyone in anything. There's no excuse or reason for it. I just, I don't know... I wish there were more super famous gay actors who could lend the same star power as Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Sean Penn, Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, etc.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think you might be surprised how many actors are gay or lesbian, and it just doesn't register. Of course you know Neil Patrick Harris - but Jim Parsons. Zachary Quinto. John Glover, Roger Rees, Derek Jacobi - never have I thought of them as gay, which, honestly, is how it should be. Not necessarily superstars, but not nobodies.

  • Homestar

    I get what you're saying. There are and have been a lot of gay actors who play straight roles all the time. But hear me out: I re-watched The Birdcage over the weekend. I remember having enjoyed it years ago, and Nathan Lane was on Colbert, so we rented it. Nathan Lane was absolutely perfect in the role, but for some reason, I was getting annoyed with a lack of sexual chemistry between him and Robin Williams. Obviously that's subjective (for instance, the chemistry between the two straight actors in Brokeback was incredible), but I couldn't help but wonder if a gay man in Robin Williams' role would have been better. I guess this was just my thought experiment for today.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'm not trying to give you a hard time, but: What do you think when you see a couple on screen comprised of a straight actor and straight actress, and they have absolutely no chemistry?

  • Homestar

    I think the same thing. It bothers me, because I don't buy the relationship.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    That's not quite the same thing. Being bothered by not buying the relationship is different from wondering if an actor with a different sexual preference would have improved it.

  • Homestar

    Yes, it's different. One thought leads to another.

    I'm kind of done thinking about this for now. I'm not really that invested in the conversation. My original question was really just to see if anyone reading had a similar feeling to me. It's not even something I feel that often, just when straight actors represent really famous gay men.

  • delle

    I don't know, I always perceived Ian McKellen to have as much star power as anyone, but I agree there are less gay superstar actors, but I suppose that also makes sense because less of the population is gay than straight...though perhaps the argument might be made that the ratio of gay to straight people in the entertainment arts might be different than just that of the general population.

    And thank you for clarifying your thoughts, I understand that you weren't trying to make, as you put it, a stupid argument :)

  • Homestar

    Thank you for hearing me out :)

    Yes, Ian McKellan is a huge star (at least now), and he has played gay characters and straight characters, but he's definitely not the norm. Basically I must be saying I want more Ian McKellan, which would be good for the universe.

  • E Robb

    I was excited for this, but the constant commercials and taking the place of Game of Thrones this week as put me at odds with it. GET OUT MY FACE LIBERACE!

  • Sara_Tonin00

    so you wish Baz Luhrmann had directed it?

  • e jerry powell

    HELLS NO.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    With the excellent cast I had figured that this would be a solid movie but I was still feeling some trepidation. I'm glad to see it was unfounded. My DVR is going to be very busy on Sunday.

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  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    I'm so hard right now. Keep talking, just be aware that my one handed typing is not up to par with most others who frequently use the internet.

  • Caspar, mate, I love that first paragraph. The humongous team aspect nature of filmmaking is what I keep coming back to when people ask why I love movies so much, and it makes me happy every time to see or hear it expressed by someone else. So cheers.

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