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Review: Douglas and Damon Shine in Soderbergh's Funny, Poignant Melodrama 'Behind the Candelabra'

by Anne Thompson
May 27, 2013 4:34 PM
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Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in "Behind the Candelabra"

The Cannes Film Festival accorded Steven Soderbergh's lush period melodrama "Behind the Candelabra" a prime competition slot (his fourth) for a reason. While it's not the first time an HBO movie has played in the mainbar (Stephen Hopkins' "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" was in competition in 2004), it will be Soderbergh's last, if he sticks to his planned retirement from making films.

With "Behind the Candelabra," the 50-year-old filmmaker is coming full circle at Cannes. He landed in competition with his first film in 1989, "sex lies and videotape," even though it had played Sundance, and took home the Palme d'Or. "It's not often you get the opportunity to arrange that kind of symmetry," Soderbergh told The Huffington Post. "It's funny to think about how long ago that was."

If "Behind the Candelabra" is his final film, it's a winner, easily among the best of his 26 features including Cannes contenders "King of the Hill" (1993) and the six-hour, two part "Che" (2008) as well as "Erin Brockovich," "Out of Sight," the lucrative "Ocean's" franchise and "Traffic," for which he won the best director Oscar.

Soderbergh is back in top form with "Behind the Candelabra," which debuts at Cannes on Tuesday and on HBO on May 26, even though he recently complained that he could not get Richard LaGravenese's well-drawn Liberace script, which was originally developed at Warner Bros., made as a studio movie because it was "too gay." During his well-publicized San Francisco Film Festival keynote speech, Soderbergh claimed that the studio numbers crunchers dictated that the movie needed to make $70 million. In this case, while the adaptable maverick has many legitimate complaints about the way the movie business works these days--or doesn't--the film turned out well on a modest HBO scale.

HBO jumped in to fund the $22.8 million movie when producer Jerry Weintraub was working with them on his documentary "My Way."  Soderbergh's designers seem to spare no expense in creating "Lee" Liberace's lavishly appointed Las Vegas settings, ornate stage shows, overscale high-collared fluffy costumes and royally kitschy palatial interiors. "Lee thinks he's Ludwig the Second," quips one observer.

'Behind the Candelabra'

But the movie is at heart a two-hander, an intimate love story between older flamboyant pianist showman (Michael Douglas) and his younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It is neither too big nor too small. It feels just right. It was shot in 30 days--five fewer than "sex lies and videotape."

"I love to give people a good time," Liberace croons to Thorson. He points out his mansion's Ionic columns, saying, "I do my own decorating." He seduces Scott with champagne and bubbles in his gold hot tub, and pads around his mansion in a gaudy caftan and gold slippers, throwing away lines like "I personally support the Austrian rhinestone business." His drycleaned costumes almost kill him until he figures out that his kidneys can't handle the deadly mix of sweat and tetrachloride.


  • filmstager | May 28, 2013 6:27 AMReply

    I found it visually perfect and both actors were on par, especially Damon. However it maintained an emotionless stilted quality and the characters were never quite engaged in their emotional reality. The entire performance was rushed and I sensed some discomfort in the actors who went through the motions but never delivered any poignant moments. Even the death bed scene was flatlained. I have to say its the directors job to bring his actors on that journey and that was its shortcoming.

  • Victor B. | May 27, 2013 11:58 PMReply

    By all means, give Michael Douglas an Emmy, but don't make this Movie of the Week out to be more than anything than what it is--a curiosity piece about a celebrity that absolutely no one cares about in 2013. This movie needed to be made, oh, 20 years ago. It went to HBO because no one outside of Vegas or San Francisco would have paid money to see it. IMO.

  • Jane | May 21, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    Great review, but the rhinestone business is in Austria, not Australia.

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