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.)