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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.

Soderbergh was able to lick the issue of how to tackle bling-inventor Liberace--a role he had long talked with "Traffic" star Douglas about playing--when he was tipped to Thorson's memoir. That gave the biopic a limited 1977-1983 time frame. Both actors masterfully navigate a tricky dance between comedic exterior showmanship and sexually-charged, often painful scenes in the boudoir. You believe that the two men love each other, but the powerful rich performer subjugates and manipulates his younger, needy and more naive partner, by making the initially starstruck dog handler and would-be veterinarian a dependent member of his support staff, as assistant, chauffeur and part of his act. Carlucci the tight-butted houseboy, passing a tray of pigs in a blanket, warns the new recruit that he won't last long.

The besotted Thorson ditches his dull but stable foster parents for a man who calls him his "baby boy." Liberace says to him, "I want to be everything to you, father, brother and lover, best friend, everything. Maybe I'm your real family." (As an indefatigable lover, Liberace confounds the younger man with his staying power. "Implants," he explains.) He eventually offers to adopt Scott, makes him undergo plastic surgery to look just like him, and buys him a home. Thorson hangs in for six years.

His shiny-faced plastic surgeon and Dr. Feelgood (Rob Lowe) gets him hooked on diet stimulants so that Thorson will continue to impress in his mini-speedo. He moves on to stronger stuff, needless to say, which is where the film is hijacked by an inevitable showbiz descent trajectory. But by the end, both Douglas and Damon are heartbreaking, and a dowdy Debbie Reynolds resonates as Liberace's clinging, angry, neglected mother. "Everyone wants a piece of me," Liberace complains. "I give and give and give."

There's an undertow to the film's message, Soderbergh has admitted. In another era, Liberace could have married, like Elton John.  And in another decade, this movie would be up for Oscars, not Emmys.

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.