Steven Soderbergh has left the film business in much the same way as he came in.
Twenty-four years after his indie scene jump-starter sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh’s final big-screen release in the UK (following his announced retirement from cinema) is another story teasing sleaze and a flash of flesh. Look closer, though, and you’ll find a far colder study of loneliness and control.
Not that it lacks fabulousness. Michael Douglas is a whirlwind of fur and glitterball glamour as the flamboyant pianist Liberace, settling into leathery, luxurious solitude in the autumnal Vegas years of his showbiz career in the late 1970s.
Matt Damon is young he-Man figurine Scott, Liberace’s latest confidant and lover, drawn in to insulate the wealthy performer from the press, his people, and various hangers-on.
The camp is occasionally – and perhaps unavoidably – played for laughs: Damon’s buttock-strip tanline as he furiously exits a golden Jacuzzi, or Douglas’ grand-piano smile as he floats dazzlingly onstage wearing what must be an entire colony of chinchillas.
But if Behind The Candelabra takes pleasure in Liberace’s over-indulgence, it never trivialises his emotional life. Credit to Soderbergh, Douglas and Damon for exploring a gay relationship with unceremonious frankness (even if they had to go to HBO to get it made after the studios turned it down), and for quite rightly recognising that the most striking thing about that relationship isn’t that it features two men.
Instead, it’s like a sequined mirror to showbiz folktale Sunset Boulevard. What starts out as lonely-man-meets-boy soon turns into a story of control rather than love, with Douglas able to shift alarmingly from cooing seducer to insistent eccentric.
Rob Lowe arrives as a scalpel-happy doctor prescribing taut-cheeked youth and “the California diet,” his extraordinary appearance – face so tight his eyes all but disappear – again combining the sinister with the outrageous.
There’s plenty to enjoy: not least Liberace’s opulent extravagance, which in turn informs his semi-tragic seclusion and the love-hate, father-son relationship with Scott. It works, even if it doesn’t quite dissect pathology with the same rigour as sex, lies, and videotape .
Yet for a film so defined by excess, Behind The Candelabra is unexpectedly restrained. if, as Liberace says, “too much of a good thing is wonderful,” then too little can leave us wanting more. The disc comes with a 15-minute peek behind the scenes, with due focus on the effort that went into getting the cossies and interiors just right.
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