You could be forgiven for taking Steven Soderburgh’s most recent public letter of resignation with a pinch of salt, but if Behind The Candelabra really is to be his last, the prolific director has shown us just what a tragedy his premature departure would be.
His 12th film of the last 5 years, Behind the Candelabra, tells the story of how a timid, young, bisexual vet (Matt Damon) become the chauffeur, lover, and later pet, of ivory-tickling superstar, Liberace, played with astonishing accuracy by Michael Douglas. After struggling to secure funding, the project was eventually picked up by HBO, rendering it ineligible for consideration at next year’s awards season, which is a shame as our two leads are at the very top of their game. Douglas perfectly captures the loneliness behind the façade of decadence and success, and Damon is utterly convincing as Scott Thorsen, the victim of Liberace’s poisonous infatuation with younger men.
Soderburgh directs with prerequisite confidence and style, capitalising fully on a superbly crafted script and some magnificent performances. The depiction of Liberace’s Las Vegas spectaculars are particularly well done; perfectly capturing the showmanship that made him the world’s highest paid entertainer. In the modern age of motion capture and CGI, it is not often that one is baffled by special effects, but the footage of Douglas shredding up the piano keys with a virtuosic Boogey-Woogey is jaw-dropping. Despite having the rather dirty tag of ‘TV movie’, no expense has been spared in recreating the outrageously lavish environment with which Liberace surrounded himself, and the film is never anything but cinematic, with the director’s signature yellow colour grading augmenting to the giddiness of the sweltering Las Vegas strip.
The pacing is implacable and the humour is black, with great support from Rob Lowe as a pill-popping plastic surgeon, facelifted beyond the point of recognition, and Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s ruthless, but bullied lawyer. The film’s unflinching and boldly undoctored portrayal of the hedonistic homosexual subculture of the 1970’s may well have been the reason it struggled to find backing from the major studios, but Behind the Candelabra offers a unashamedly outrageous portrayal of its lascivious subject. However, underneath the latex and furs is an utterly believable same-sex relationship, with the same frankness and disregard for political correctness as the likes of I Love You Philip Morris.
Above all, Behind the Candelabra is consistently entertaining, and every bit as gripping as the likes of Out of Sight or Side Effects, with the spectacle of Magic Mike and the slickness of Ocean’s 11. Soderburgh’s refusal to be pigeon holed into a particular genre has given him a broad pallet with which he has painted a truly fine portrait of a pair of larger-than-life characters that could have so easily descended into caricature.
If this really is to be Soderburgh’s last picture, we can be thankful that Behind the Candelabra is a beautifully written, stylish swan-song with some extraordinary performances. It would be a huge shame to lose a filmmaker of such talent, especially one who still has the ability to surprise us.