The Films of 2013: Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, currently playing on HBO after a Cannes premiere, confirms that some of the most interesting filmmaking these days is being done for the so-called “small screen”: after Hollywood studio executives refused to greenlight the project, which examines the years-long relationship between Liberace and his partner Scott Thorson (it was apparently feared to be “too gay” for the cinema-going public), Soderbergh took it to HBO, where it promises to be a major success.  The film also feels strangely right for cable TV, which has long specialized in this kind of tabloid-flavored biopic, although it’s rarely given such A-list treatment.  Soderbergh’s film is just about as good as anything he’s ever done and promises to be one of the best films of the year—it’s certainly better than just about anything else currently playing at your local theater.

The material, while never tawdry (Liberace’s flamboyant love of costumes, jewels, and furs is treated, like his homosexuality, as a simple matter of fact), is admittedly familiar stuff.  We bear witness to Liberace’s relationship with Thorson as it moves from mutual infatuation to animosity, poisoned by jealousy, drugs, sex, and plastic surgery.  But in the hands of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, both of whom do some of the best work of their careers here, and anchored by a very good script by Richard LaGravanese, it’s fascinating stuff.  And the glancing efficiency of Soderbergh’s direction creates an interesting tension with the excessiveness of the subject matter.  That’s to say that though the film is about one of the campiest stars in the history of show business, it’s told with Soderbergh’s characteristically stylish restraint.  (It’s this quality of Soderbergh’s films that I’ll miss most if, as he’s said he plans to do, he ends up retiring from the movie business.)

Throughout his twenty-plus-year career, Soderbergh has always found success by dabbling in various genres (the erotic drama, the heist film, the disaster movie) and breathing new life into them.  He’s an understated and eminently sane filmmaker, which is why even a movie as ambitious as Traffic (for which he won an Oscar) feels deft and subtle instead of heavy and self-important.  Behind the Candelabra's central love affair is rendered with rich humanity, decorated with all sorts of wonderfully odd comic touches.  This is a film far more interested in noting the peculiar textures of a relationship than in muck-raking.  Much of the pleasure lies in its details: the chorus of poodles and terriers that attend Liberace as he moves through his gilded mansion; the way Thorson’s predecessor rolls his eyes when Thorson comes on the scene; the tone of voice Liberace uses when he addresses his middle-aged female fans as “girls”; the intimate casualness with which Damon and Douglas sit next to each other on the couch (Damon munches popcorn, his legs in Douglas’ lap); or the sublime final sequence, a beautiful and fittingly absurd parody of the ascension, set to “The Impossible Dream.”  This is how to do a Hollywood biopic—with wit and panache, and great affection.  I hope that this isn’t the last we’ll see of Soderbergh, but if it is, Behind the Candelabra is a triumphant note on which to make an exit.

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