Monday, 14 October 2013

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS: BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS

6. BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2012, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

14/10/2013

*

I have been waiting to write about this film for a while, and the day of its DVD and blu-ray release is the best, as it means that people worldwide can see "Behind the Candelabra" the way US audiences saw its premiere - on a TV screen, at home.

Steven Soderbergh has announced that "Behind the Candelabra" will be his last film, frustrated at having failed to secure funding or release from a film studio, having been told that the potential audience would have been too small, consisting of only gay men and the over-50s, who could remember who Liberace was - by the way, for those who definitely don't know, Liberace was a flamboyantly-dressed man who played, in a sincere but syrupy manner, reworked classical music to housewives that saw him like a son, thereby sidestepping any gay subtext altogether. 

This argument does not work in a country where "Milk," a film about a gay city councillor, won Oscars for its writer and for its star, Sean Penn, and where a minority audience can support a gay-themed general entertainment channel, Logo, from the same company that owns MTV.

"Behind the Candelabra" was eventually made by HBO for $23 million, the sort of money that BSkyB pays in a year to show HBO programmes on Sky Atlantic - in other words, the money was there already, it was just a case of making a good story with it, and seeing how many people would watch.

What we got was a lively portrayal of an intense and hedonistic secret affair between a man and a myth, as well as the man behind that myth.

I don't want to ruin the story, but here is a brief outline - Matt Damon, playing the adolescent animal wrangler Scott Thorson, is introduced to Michael Douglas's Liberace following a Las Vegas show - Thorson's promise to fix the eyesight of Liberace's pet dog leads to growing contact between the pair, Thorson eventually supplanting the dog as the older man's "Baby Boy." What was a sweet relationship turns to the excess of the high life, with plastic surgery, adoption and drug abuse perfectly logical options within their own terms. Thorson eventually, like so many before, is discarded for being too difficult, until a reconciliation on Liberace's deathbed allows genuine love to shine through one last time.

The film's humour and charm comes from how most of what you see genuinely needs to be seen to be believed - the excess, Liberace's house, the cars, the scenery, Matt Damon's prosthetic work as he is turned into a "son" and, most of all, how utterly astonishing Michael Douglas's performance is throughout. If you don't know who he is meant to be, the sheer force of character is as intoxicating as it is for us as it is for Scott Thorson - Michael Douglas won an Emmy, to add to the seven other awards the film won, but it could easily have been an Oscar had circumstances been different. Matt Damon's change in character, from dream to nightmare, is the logical answer to how carried away you feel by all the excess, but logic is not meant to have a place here, especially a the whim of a cabaret piano player's whims.

It should also be noted that, even in 2013, it is quite different to see a gay relationship on screen, in a way that makes it feel quite new. "Brokeback Mountain" proved there was an accepting audience out there, even if it was for an idea that a gay relationship is portrayed as dysfunctional through its "otherness", trying to reconcile itself into what you expect to see, but some still think the audience for that sort of thing is still too small, which was where we came in.

Nothing I can write can replace the effect you will feel from watching "Behind the Candelabra" but, for everyone's sake, do watch it, prove there is an audience for something outside the norm and, at least, give Steven Soderbergh some hope in film again...

...and, at the very least, watch it for Rob Lowe playing a plastic surgeon that looks like a cross between Steven Tyler and Lady Penelope from "Thunderbirds"...


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