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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 27, 2013 at 4:34PM

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.
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Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in "Behind the Candelabra"
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'
'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.

This article is related to: Reviews, Cannes Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra , Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.