Monday, May 27, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

The flamboyance, the excess, the grandeur, the more of it all is as much a part of the story of Liberace as the man beneath the sequined clothing.  Mr. Showman, the piano man, played up to the heavens with a decadent splendor that positively demanded that any screen treatment that could ever be conceived to paint his picture be the biggest, the flashiest and the most colorful.  Mere 3-D wouldn't be enough to showcase the all the glitter and jewels he bespectacled and properly do it justice.  On that note it is slightly surprising that a filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh, with his muted palette and fly on the wall choreography, would be such a natural to create such a vivid, potent, subtly multifaceted biography of his life and bizarre romance with a man much younger than he.  Ever more surprisingly and sufficiently saddening is the continuing announcement that this may in fact be Soderbergh's swan song from filmmaking.  With the seemingly non-congruent pieces of puzzle in place it only makes sense, I suppose, that Soderbergh's long in development Behind the Candelabra enters the fray with a bittersweet taste to go along with its unorthodox release.  Premiering on HBO instead of the three-thousand screens that typically befits a starry-eyed Soderbergh production-- the main players here are Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, both of whom have ample experience with the filmmaker-- and coming off its in-competition berth at the Cannes Film Festival.

For a subject so peculiar and a film so fascinating, it's both a joyous and sad event that Behind the Candelabra couldn't fashion itself into movie screens.  A subject as big and brash and colorful as Liberace (and the performance that Douglas creates to match it) deserve it, but more so, seemingly demand it.  The small screen almost comes across as an insult for an entertainer who always dreamed a bigger dream than the last.  "To much of a good thing is wonderful," is a clever and cheeky line of dialogue, but Douglas devours it as a mantra.  On the other hand, Behind the Candelabra is a rarefied film in itself-- refined but bawdy, delicate but complex, unrestricted but classy, and one suggests that the practice of the Hollywood machine may have diluted Soderbergh's soulful vision to point of worthless dither, on top of the choice reasoning that the filmmaker states that the film was "too gay" for the focus testers in the film industry.  Of which may very well be true, but to deny a story of Liberace of its "gay-ness" for the sensitivity of weary consumers would be, well, to lie.  On this end, it's for the films betterment that every major studio, as reported, passed on Behind the Candelabra.

Soderbergh shapes the film on the last decade of Liberace, when the showman had perhaps already subsided well into camp, freeing the film from the scattered episodic treatment that drives so many biopics into the doldrums of a once upon a time structure.  Loosely adapted by the book by Alex Thorleifson and Liberace's former lover Scott Thorson, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's tart and succulent screenplay navigates the gaudy too-much that is Liberace through the prism of Thorson, played by Damon.  Introduced a naive young buck from an unhappy childhood, Scott is thrust in the grandeur and spirited artifice that is the name and his lifestyle.  A self proclaimed bisexual, Scott is shy but certainly welcoming of Liberace's (known as Lee to his close circle) initial advances.

It's a thing of near genius with the casting of Michael Douglas, who in his most famous film roles always struck as the embodiment of masculinity to the point of near predatory.  The scenes where Lee is zeroing in on Scott upend and are nearly transgressive as played by the actor most famous for Wall Street, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.  His Liberace may be nothing more than an unsubtle horn dog on the prowl (the snappish twitches of his current protegee/not-so-secret boyfriend played by Cheyenne Jackson are all the more telling of the disposable toys in the entertainers life), but there's a softness to his flirt.  Certainly to a young boy without a proper family to speak of would feel like aglow.  Douglas jumps any hedges of creepiness because he imbues his showman with a gentle and warm humanity, while certainly sharing Gordon Gekko's personal mantra of "greed is good" all at once.

In other words, Scott didn't even have much of a chance, and neither did the young man he replaced.  Lee scooped him into his grand mansion and grander than thou lifestyle, hiring him as his chauffeur/assistant/kept boy.  The first third of Behind the Candelabra is an intimate love story, an affectionate tale of two men and their complicated but happily committed relationship.  The lurid backdrop makes for great fun in production and costume design, but the beating heart is kept a go because of the winsome and very relaxed rapport of Douglas and Damon, who improbably sell the story.  Of course, there's scandal-- there's drugs and sex and strange acts to follow-- but Soderbergh settles the film firstly and simply as a love story.  What could be reduced as a father-son, May-December gay romance is fleshed out by not so much because they didn't complete one another in that simplified fashion-- Lee sees Scott as the son he never had and vice versa-- but because the tenderness and complexity of their relationship has genuine pathos.

The fights start early enough as assumed for a larger than character whose not-so-secret sexuality must be forever covered up and lied about in the press.  The cleverness of LaGravenese's script is that a nearly full portrait of Liberace is subtly underlined in breezy asides rather than overly drawn out stretches, such as Lee's continual press quote that figure skater Sonja Henje is the love of his life.  It's even unclear if his own mother was ever made aware of this fact (an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds plays her.)  Even more absurd is when plastic surgery entered their relationship-- Lee goes under the knife after seeing himself on television, and saying "I look like my father in drag."  In a full tilt sweep of narcissism, while Lee makes himself look younger, he convinces Scott to under surgery to make him look more like him.  In his willingness to please and aware of how Lee's possessions can be removed, Scott obliges.  It's a lurid, and creepily fascination as Lee takes ownership over his lover's face, seemingly as an effort to keep him around to remind himself of his own once-matinee idol self.  Rob Lowe makes a playful extended cameo as the greasy surgeon, the one who also seemingly kick starts Scott's nasty drug habit.

The latter section of Behind the Candelabra is still compelling, but it's unfortunately not nearly as vibrant.  The film devolves into a series of ideas that pull focus away from the relationship it so tenderly and strangely developed in the first place.  Scott's struggles for Lee's waning affections as well as his deeper drug tendencies result in lots of shouting match "drama" but Soderbergh stages them in a nearly procedural way, a rundown into eventual collapse.  When the relationship is over, amidst an AIDS-scared back drop (which is presented firstly by a rather tacky newspaper headline about Rock Hudson), Scott and Lee are at arms-- legally and literally.  The film trickles out when the dynamism of their scenes start to fade out.  Part of this may because Scott is the main protagonist, but his also an interloper, strangely situated audience surrogate.  It's not that Damon doesn't do a fine job-- he does and actualizes a vapid, Ken doll-like dimness in Scott that's endearing and shades him terrifically as he becomes all the more aware he's being pushed aside-- it's that the film starts to project itself (like politically navigate the treacly matters of AIDS and, ahem, marriage) rather simply simmer.

In the end, however, Soderbergh proves to be the perfect minimalist showman to capture the over-sized meglomania of someone like Liberace.  The quieter, breeziness lets the actors go big without ever seeming silly.  And he lets the artifice simply stand as such.  None of the set pieces, glittery stage lights, flowing fur coats or glistening jewels overpower the drama or blithely salacious dialogue.  If this does end up as a farewell from filmmaking from the maestro of so many enchanted films, from the big to the small to the impossibly weird, it's a worthy send-off and a job well.  Hopefully it's good enough for the larger than life fixture at its focus, a man who scoffed that his first name was of such ordinary breeding.  B+


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