Steven Soderbergh's swansong (for real) looks at the private life of American light entertainer, Liberace.
So this is it. Steven Soderbergh bids one final teary-eyed adieu to movieland while clutching a monogrammed lace handkerchief. His swansong (for real) is a standard issue biopic of showtune-cranking, puppy dog-loving sex maniac, "Lee" Liberace, as essayed by Michael Douglas who has been slathered in thick terra cotta prosthetics. It's a wry piece of counter-casting, especially for an actor whose style, during his heyday, was the embodiment of corporate, slick-haired machismo, and the odd spectacle alone is entirely fitting of this singularly ostentatious entertainer.
Yet the feeling with Behind The Candelabra, which is ripped from a novel written by one of the Liberace's spurned lovers, Scott Thorson (played here by Matt Damon), is that it lacks that noticeable Soderbergh touch. The subtle sense of subversion that lifts generic material beyond mundane, journeyman hokum is just not there, and while this is certainly a higher class of cinematic biography, it's still just does its job of hitting all the cosy beats we expect in this type of material.
Also, this is perhaps the first film since the Ocean's sequels where it would be tough to actually guess that it was Soderbergh's beady eye glancing down the viewfinder, as the film settles for a rote biography mode (let's call it a "Wiki-structure") which allows it to amply succeed as piece of kiss-and-tell yellow journalism, but not as a truly satisfying and original piece of cinema that reveals anything beyond the vulgar, secret life of its subject. While not as superficially entertaining, the director's near-abstract take on Che Guevara was a far more radical and full-blooded attempt to reconfigure the norms of life-of-a-man moviemaking.
Thorson, a Dirk Diggler-like party boy with a hot bod and flowing golden locks, heads to Liberace's cabaret extravaganza and is escorted back stage to meet the man who plays high-speed boogie-woogie piano with bejewelled digits and while propped behind a trademark gilded candelabra. It's not long before Thorson is making personal visits to Liberace's gaudy palatial homestead and is swiftly invited to reside there permanently as a live-in companion, sex toy and (potentially) adopted son. A coterie of mysterious young men strut around the place looking crestfallen and dissatisfied until they're eventually forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding their nocturnal activities and sent packing with a roll of banknotes.
From there, the film treads a familiar path, with Thorson's affair ending up in exactly the place you expect it to on the back of all the unsubtle signposting that has come before it. As a character, Douglas's spirited, slimy take on Liberace never manages to transcend a pudgy figure-of-fun, and his fruity antics are never explained beyond a the suggestion of surface level eccentricity and greed. Episodes regarding the pair's experiments with plastic surgery suggest the film is about to stray into darker territory, but a jokey (and, admittedly, film-stealing) cameo from Rob Lowe plus some screwball-y surgery footage keeps the film well grounded in the cheery realms of light comedy.
Soderbergh casts '80s and '90s character stalwarts like Scott Bakula, Paul Reiser and Dan Aykroyd in supporting roles, but then neglects to give them anything to do. Aykroyd, who plays Liberace's cantankerous, Colonel Tom Parker-like manager is particularly wasted, as he's given a single phone call scene with Douglas and then spends much of the film's remainder just hovering in the middle distance with nothing to do or say.
Perhaps the single way in which Behind The Candelabra manages to speak of something beyond the details of Liberace's antics is in its exploration of what is meant by a private life. The film arrives at an interesting time in the UK, particularly as ongoing police investigations are routinely exhuming the devient predilections of a number of household-name celebrities which were thought to have been amply shielded from the public eye. Perhaps the film says that there will always be a witness to history, that money only buys silence to a certain degree, and that in death, any kind of assiduously manufactured image is unlikely to join you in the grave.
Steven Soderbergh's last hurrah.
Stellar performances that are held back by a too-rigid and predictable biopic template.
Not Big Steve's finest hour, but an effortless entertainment none the less.