Too gay for American studios, Behind the Candelabra debuted at the 66th Cannes Film Festival and saw a subsequent broadcast on HBO earlier in the week. It also marks the supposed final feature-length film by director Steven Soderbergh. How a director of such commercial significance (Magic Mike, the Ocean’s films) could not garner the appropriate studio funding to release his film in theaters struck me as an oddity. But viewing Behind the Candelabra, preconceived notions of its supposed “gayness” undermine the social and political subtext prevalent throughout the picture. Adopting the usual genre tropes of a biopic, Soderbergh exercises masterful control over his devilishly flamboyant subject while provoking an interesting commentary on gay marriage and the superficiality of celebrity.
Daringly casting Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and his young lover respectively, Soderbergh outright subverts expectations. Douglas’ career has been riddled with performances exuding of hyper-masculine heterosexuality. With Basic Instinct, Falling Down, and Wall Street in his filmography, the actor has never so much quite taken on a role of such daintiness. Well, daintiness is putting it lightly. Lined in fur coats and rings on each finger (along with an unrivaled libido), Douglas’ Liberace is as much a performance as it is a presence. While much of the performance is dependent on encompassing an empty sense of opulence, there’s a sense of internalization that Douglas exercises – a slight glance between him and Damon achieves a true sense of dramatic heft.
The usual praise can be dispensed toward Soderbergh’s immaculate production. A gorgeous visual spectacle, Behind the Candelabra is another one of the director’s stapled elegant pieces, though this one is covered in rhinestone. Perhaps the biggest pitfall of the film rests in it source – adapted by Richard LaGrevenese from Scott Thorson’s autobiography, Behind the Candelabra only briefly acknowledges the stage persona that Liberace adopts and the subsequent queerness of his private life. The screenplay essentially removes the mystique of his double life and becomes more an exposé on the relationship between Liberace and Thorson. There was a time where people did not associate Liberace’s flamboyance with homosexuality, whereupon he crafted an identity that adhered to heteronormative standards – had Soderbergh tackled this aspect, I suspect the picture would detour into a different beast entirely. It’s a particularly interesting gloss-over, though the film is essentially designed to explore the relationship between two gay men and for that, it’s compellingly realized. Soderbergh’s knack for packaging social issues within genre form is unrivaled and shows a director of such dexterity and precision – it’s a bittersweet end to see him lower the curtain.