Friday, May 31, 2013

HBO's "Too Gay for Movie Studios" Behind the Candelabra

     Last year, director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature films (at least for the time being): 2013 would screen his last two movies. In February, we saw the pretty good Side Effects, with its creepy undertones and one-too-many twists that undermined it from being a truly great film. Just a few days ago, people filled into the theater...wait a minute, I mean sat on their couches to witness the last film direction that the intriguing director would ever do (supposedly). That's right: the prolific and interesting director's last effort would air on HBO instead of the local cinema. For us--the audience--it worked out great: the intimate story played out beautifully on our high definition LCD screens, wrapped up in the comfort and the quiet of our own homes. But one must feel bad for the actors--because Michael Douglas (as Liberace) and Matt Damon (as his much younger lover Scott Thorson) give two of the best performances in film so far this year, both of which clearly would have been nominated for Oscars. Any film: not just movies made for television.
     Studios are surely regretting the decision now, since the film has scored some big ratings (especially for Memorial Day weekend). Soderbergh tried to get financing for the film, shopping it around to all of the major movie studios. Essentially--according to the director himself--they didn't want to take a risk financing a movie about Liberace and his young gay lover. It's surprising: the subject and performances are ripe Oscar bait, and there isn't any graphic anal sex--just simulated without really showing that much.
     You'd also think that film focuses more on Liberace, but the story follows Scott Thorson particularly (makes sense, since the film is sort-of based upon Thorson's memoir, titled Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace).Though it's a bit one-sided in Thorson's favor, Behind the Candelabra simply boils down to a love story: an arc that deals with all of the highs and lows of relationships, two partners with huge age differences, and the notion that money and celebrity--with all of its glamorous material objects--can buy love. It's all pretty standard, but the two main performances elevate it to slightly above average. Thorson was an orphan, in and out of foster homes, and when he goes to a Liberace performance with a friend, they end up backstage. When the two main stars lock eyes, it's clear the sparks fly: Thorson is transfixed by Liberace's eccentric skill at music and working a room, and Liberace almost licks his lips at the young and virginal beefcake that stands before him.
     Liberace becomes a father figure for Thorson, and a lot of weird dynamics start appearing between the two. Lib "hires" Thorson to be his right hand man: being his chauffeur, his buffer to the fans and press, that type of thing. Maybe they start falling in love. Or maybe Thorson is brainwashed by the glitz of Liberace's lifestyle and decides that living in a mansion with unlimited money ain't such a bad deal. As their relationship progresses, problems start arising. Lib is obsessed with himself, and he tries to control Thorson's every move. He even hires a plastic surgeon (played hilariously by Rob Lowe) to make Scott look more like himself. it's all narcissistic and gross. Their relationship as lovers merges into other less healthy notions: a father/son and employer/employee dynamic. The rise and fall of their time together is the basis for the film's story.
     Michael Douglas plays Liberace as a man who is constantly concerned with the way he is portrayed--during his charismatic performances and even at home in his personal time. In his obsession with looking and feeling younger, he hits on (or preys on) younger, more attractive men that make him feel like a man decades his junior. But--like a bloodsucker--once he changes his mind about his partner (for instance they annoy him, or try and become more independent instead of being like his little lap dogs), he has no trouble or emotion changing his boy-toy for the new and latest (younger and more hard-bodied) version. He's great in this. But Damon is even better: showing that he can be one of the greatest actors of his generation, his transformation into Scott Thorson, a young and shy "bisexual" who turns into an emotional man with many complexities, is extremely entertaining to watch. He causes you to feel...not just watch.
      As Soderbergh's last movie, it's a worthy addition to his filmography. But it doesn't make any grand statements that will cause it to become a classic that people will remember when they think of his directing efforts. Sure, the whole thing looks great: he captures the glitz and glamour that Liberace personified in the 1970's and 1980's, and instead of overpowering the scenes with flashy direction, he lets the actors act, usually in intimate settings. And that's precisely where Behind the Candelabra shines: the moments when Lib and Scott are all alone, either at the beginning of their relationship, when there was a nervous tension and excitement that shows on Damon's face, or during the downfall, when every argument and betrayal cuts as deep as a plastic surgeon's knife.     (B)


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