Director Steven Soderbergh has been quoted as saying he’s retired from directing motion pictures. Let’s hope he just means films intended for theatrical release. Or, that he doesn’t mean it at all.
With the freedom he’s demonstrated to assemble top-notch actors and writers and to secure funding while maintaining control by shooting and editing the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, it’s easy to see that he may be making the right move for himself creatively to leave the studio fold with this film. It’s not the type of creative risk studios seem willing to take anymore, and that is a pity.
Behind the Candelabra is the story of the outrageous pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) told from the perspective of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) during the time they had an affair in the 1980s. There are many elements in terms of scope, style, and pacing in this film that remind me a little of Soderbergh’s first feature film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which I loved when it burst on the scene in 1989.
In this case, I like the intimacy of the storytelling, foregrounding the ordinary moments in Liberace’s life off-stage with his preening presence onstage in outlandish costumes, jewelry, and wigs. The story is based on Thorson’s 1988 memoir and adapted by Richard LaGravenese, who has notably adapted some popular books into better films (that is not a typo, and yes, I am talking about The Bridges of Madison County in particular).
What really makes this film work above all other elements, however, is watching Michael Douglas transform into Liberace and Matt Damon transform into a character unlike any I’ve seen him play before. The actors have a kind of twisted but convincing chemistry. We watch as the (much) older man spots his handsome prey, teases out his vulnerabilities, and exploits them to his own advantage all the while knowing this cannot end well.
Actually, we’ve seen the ending at the beginning; as Scott moves into Liberace’s house, his sullen predecessor is moving out. But, Scott is sure that he is going to be different, and perhaps in some regards he is, at least, for a time.
If Michael Douglas owns the calculating moments, Matt Damon owns the painful moments, and together they are a marvel to watch.
The film unfolds as two parts fascination and entertainment to one part morbid curiosity. I simply could not look away, and the quietness of the visual style of the film provides the perfect complement to the flamboyance of what is happening within every frame.