BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013, Steven Soderbergh): 8/10
The entire story of this film takes place in one ten-year block, from 1977 to 1987. But as much as any film of 2013, it’s very much relevant right now — and that’s because of the issue of gay marriage. As more and more states exit the stone age and start to strip away the discriminations against gays getting married, the argument still exists and is in the forefront as much as ever. Ten years ago, the issue was barely a whisper outside the gay community. Today, there are marches in the street against Prop 8.
As Soderbergh’s magnificent film depicts the relationship between Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson, it makes a few strong points: first, that gay “marriage” has been existing forever, despite the legal ban on it — Liberace and Thorson have their courtship, swooning love, honeymood period, fights, infidelities, mistrusts, anger, rejection, and bitter divorce. Secondly, these marriages are no different from straight ones, so anyone arguing that such a union sullies the institution is sorely ignorant or homophobic. Thirdly, and most notably, is the financial aspect — as most of Soderbergh’s recent films have explored the issue of money transaction in the world of sex and romance (THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, MAGIC MIKE, SIDE EFFECTS), this one points out how Thorson failed to recoup what would have come to him had he been a woman divorcing Liberace. When women leave men, they get half. When men leave men, the law doesn’t care –he gets pennies.
Aside from this bold and dynamic entry into the discussion of gay marriage, however, the film itself is quite conventional and formulaic. We’ve seen this type of relationship play out on screen dozens of times (just without two men, and especially not when those men are massive stars like Michael Douglas and Matt Damon), and all the beats are familiar. But the cliches here are elevated wonderfully by Soderbergh’s dazzling visuals (he always knows where to put the camera and where to cut — one brilliant edit has Liberace convincing Scott to fly from L.A. to Vegas and promising a quick return, and off Damon’s pensive face, there’s a quick cut to the two of them naked in a hot tub holding champagne flutes) and the incredible acting. Douglas is tremendous here — believable, flamboyant, and dedicated. But for me, Damon is even more impressive. He’s had a great career, but this may be his best performance to date. There is hardly a note he doesn’t get to hit, and not a single ball he fails to knock out of the park. It’s emotionally strong, physically demanding, and markedly intense. Had the studios not been such insipid cowards (the Oscar nominations and success of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN notwithstanding) and refused to finance this film, relegating Soderbergh to finding an outlet in cable station HBO, Damon would be tough to beat come Oscar time, for me. (That said, had this truly been a studio release, there’s no doubt Douglas would be getting all the Oscar talk, and not without reason).
No surprise Soderbergh cast his frequent collaborators Damon (from the OCEAN’S movies and more) and Douglas (from TRAFFIC), nor Damon’s co-star from THE INFORMANT!, Scott Bakula, but the other supporting roles pop as well. The most notable is Rob Lowe as a terrifying plastic surgeon and pill prescriber, his eyebrows artificially raised and lips frozen in a sadistic smile. (His face lift of Liberace provides one of the film’s best gags – Douglas snoring and sleeping with his eyes open post-surgery). With a cast like this and direction like Soderbergh’s, any conventional story is given a great face lift, but when you add the gay marriage component and characters like this, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA becomes a film impossible to ignore.