At 30,000 feet Steven Soderbergh had a revelation from a neighbouring passenger’s i-pad. Its owner was watching just the non-narrative action, dialogue-free sequences from various movies which Soderbergh judged to be like watching a form of ‘mayhem porn.’ “Something is going on” in our culture and ourselves if this is what we want to watch now. So begins his eloquent dissection of and diatribe on the state of cinema and movies (between which he makes a clear distinction) and which explains his decision to move away from mainstream, feature film-making. Well worth viewing anyway (reference below), he includes a discussion of some of the issues of financing Behind the Candelabra a subsequently made-for-TV biopic about the pianist and showman, Liberace. Being a subject-matter “too special” (in Soderbergh’s words) for mainstream feature production studios, it was HBO who financed the project. More evidence, then, if any were needed of the increasing ascendancy of television over films as the medium of independently-minded creativity.
The made-for-TV biopic used, at one time, to signal a kind of Sunday-afternoon movie to lounge in front of – and a distinctly inferior product to studio-produced versions. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra explodes that idea, at the same time as it follows the trend of recent years where very-established film directors have moved across (not down) to work in cable television. The name HBO has become a shorthand for this kind of ambitious style because it has been able to attract, for example, Todd Haynes to make his Mildred Pierce or Martin Scorsese to begin Boardwalk Empire (directing the pilot episode).
Television, of course, is referred to as the starmaker and it’s where Liberace became a huge hit from 1950s (first in America and then syndicated to countries including the UK). An instinctive showman, beginning with the addition of the candelabra to the piano (apparently inspired by A Song to Remember, Charles Vidor’s biopic of Chopin starring Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon). Old Europe hangs over Vidor, Wilde (Hungary) and Liberace (Poland) whilst Wilde and Liberace became quintessential American stars. Those of us old enough remember the excessive glamour of his later TV appearances remember how – in 1970s Britain – they were the kind of dazzling entertainment that suggested everything of American glitz, the kind that Hollywood as well as Las Vegas excelled in.
A great irony, then, that apparently Soderbergh failed to find financing for the project in Tinsel Town because of the subject matter for that conservative institution, being the relationship between Liberace and his young lover, Scott Thorson. The film uses the book written by Thorson, Liberace’s lover during the late seventies and early eighties, about his affair and their time together. An interesting article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/fashion/scott-thorson-the-boy-toys-story.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0
Importantly, Soderbergh – with his two stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – has decided to play this straight. The kitsch, the excess are all there in the lavish sets and costumes that were Liberace’s everyday world, but the film represents an important statement because of way it treats the love story as the story of any relationship in those circumstances. Some of the most affecting scenes are those which show how relationships can go – the intimacy which gives way to disappointment, petty jealousies and hopeless demands, with moments of reconciliation. The backdrop may be marble, gold and crystal inauthenticity but Damon and Douglas remain in this story, rather than playing it ‘to the side’ with the kind of knowing irony or camp humour and the success is that these are character performances rather than star turns. (Although Liberace’s mother exuded star value despite the wig, make-up and glasses – revealed as Debbie Reynolds in the guise of an ordinary person). It’s generous re the story’s point of view, embracing Thorson’s book without criticism (as a typical TV biopic would do). I wrote this prior to reading the Sight and Sound review, and was interested to see that Douglas and Damon intended it as a love story, but the S&S reviewer had counted them to have failed in this. I don’t agree – the play on the real and the unreal is more multi-layered in this film. Richard La Gravenese’s script and the leads’ performances make comprehensible such things as Liberace’s request for Thorson to undergo plastic surgery to look like him (Rob Lowe embracing the comedy-villain, plastic surgeon enthusiastically). That’s no mean feat. I would say it deserves a nod to A Star is Born (1954) (and Vidor’s 1945 film) rather than Mommie Dearest or Pasolini’s Salò – as S&S suggests, a deliberately odd review flourish in the latter case. This is, in fact, a film that rather than milking the Hollywood Babylon effect, shoots it as if it became your everyday condo (which is what it did for Thorson). And there is no monster at the centre of this labyrinth.
Douglas’s performance plays a huge part in this, It won’t be rewarded, however, perhaps mercifully (given the suggestion that ‘playing gay’ somehow always deserves plaudits), since it fails to qualify for Oscar honours as a television movie not distributed in the cinemas in the U.S. It is a great performance nevertheless. Soderbergh serves the drama throughout with his filmic style – because he always understands the kind of film he is making (hence the contrast between Out of Sight with The Limey with Bubble with Haywire etc. etc). LaGravenese imagines a linear narrative structure, but which has many elements of repetition and circularity – ideal to emphasise the melodrama at its core. Stylistically, there are some deft and subtle choices in the cinematography (as frequently on other films, Soderbergh as Peter Andrews). Near the beginning, Scott enters the Casino, Las Vegas during a performance. Being shown to the table, we track him and his companion in the foreground while deep in the background of the frame moves this blurry, glittering object. Something beautiful, indistinguishable and out of reach. The ending of the film shows the film returning to the promise of this fantasy – which, after all, is what Liberace spent his life creating.
HBO has long been involved in financing work in the independent sector in America. Television as a medium certainly seems to have come of age as a player in the film industry and will hopefully provide the disillusioned Soderbergh with somewhere to do his creative work. A great relief for those of us who went into anaphylactic shock at the news he was retiring. A new series called The Knick is in the pipeline for cable and satellite (Time-Warner-owned) Cinemax.
His cri de coeur at the San Francisco International Film Festival: http://www.indiewire.com/article/watch-full-video-recording-of-steven-soderberghs-impassioned-state-of-cinema-address-from-the-san-francisco-film-festival returns to a number of themes that Soderbergh has discussed and attempted to live his professional life by – the use and nature of art, how talent can be nurtured, what’s wrong with the studio system (and includes the remarks on financing this film). Much is reminiscent of William Goldman’s famous ‘nobody knows anything’ mantra re the business. What Soderbergh knows is that business shouldn’t be so completely in charge. It’s half-an-hour of articulate explanation of why ‘cinema’ (work executed as a singular vision) is under threat, and the business structures that are killing innovation and art. Some of the foreboding in relation to independent film was also a feature of producer Mark Gill’s warning blast in 2008 to the LA film festival re independent production: http://www.indiewire.com/article/first_person_film_departments_mark_gill_yes_the_sky_really_is_falling (which might therefore be of interest).