Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds
With Hollywood determined to play it safe and stick to generic cliché and recycling trusted ideas, subscription television networks like AMC and HBO have become the home of innovative and interesting filmmaking. So it is fitting that one of the most interesting films of the year should be a television movie. Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, Steven Soderbergh’s film is a behind-closed-doors biopic of one of the world’s most flamboyant and conflicted entertainers.
Behind the Candelabra explores the final decade of Liberace’s life through the lens of his relationship with his young companion, friend and lover Scott. As time goes on, their relationship becomes more complicated with Scott’s identity disappearing into the world of Liberace as the entertainer seeks to adopt him and even buy him facial reconstruction surgery so they can look more alike, all in the name of being family.
Having been in gestation since 2008, the project was turned down by practically every Hollywood studio on the grounds that it was, as Soderbergh puts it, “too gay.” So it fell to HBO, who have made their name by taking chances that commercial networks wouldn’t dare, to make the picture. As a result, Behind the Candelabra was released on television in the US, but it has been given a cinematic release in Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom.
Today, it seems astounding to think that people would be unaware that Liberace was gay. But his fame predated the rise to prominence of gay culture and sensibility in America, and the film gives insight into how closely guarded and managed, not to mention litigated, his secret was. A scene in which Scott reads a passage from Liberace’s autobiography emphasises the extent to which the entertainer has been forced to live and perpetuate a lie.
The screenplay also touches on Liberace’s Catholicism, which he maintained despite that church’s stance on homosexuality, but doesn’t choose to make it a major issue.
With Michael Douglas attached to play Liberace, the production was delayed for a couple of years as he battled throat cancer, but it was worth the wait as Douglas’ performance is tremendous, some of the best work of his long career. In a role in which it would have been very easy to resort to caricature, Douglas gives Liberace incredible depth and complexity, showing him to be at once lonely, insecure, jealous, predatory, possessive and controlling. We also get some impressive scenes of Liberace working his magic on the ivories thanks to seamless digital work, compositing Douglas’ head onto a piano-playing double.
In the role of Scott Thorson, Matt Damon serves as the audiences entry point into the extravagant and glittery world of Liberace. He is as confronted as we are when he first arrives in Liberace’s home, but as he settles into his surrounding so do we. Casting the 42 year old Damon in the role of Scott, despite the fact that Scott was still a teenager when he met Liberace in real life, allows the film to focus on the authenticity of their relationship without having to deal with the awkwardness of the immense age difference.
The strong headline performances are backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast including Dan Aykroyd, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds and a heavily made up Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz, who is himself nipped, tucked and botoxed within an inch of his life.
Unsurprisingly in a film about the most flamboyant showman ever, the costume, set and production design takes centre stage with some fabulous recreations of Liberace’s signature costumes and his “palatial kitsch” home.
Despite being at times quite funny, overall it is a terribly sad, melancholy film, about an immensely talented, successful but conflicted man who is crippled by his need to please people, and who chooses to keep such a central part of who he is secret from the world so as not to be dismissed as a “silly old queen.”
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
When I visited America a couple of years ago, I was struck by the advertising of prescription medications on TV. Viewers were encouraged to ask their doctor about the latest cholesterol medication or anti-depressant. It seemed symptomatic of a society with a disturbingly consumerist relationship with medication. It is precisely this mindset, particularly towards mood-altering medications, that Steven Soderbergh seeks to expose in Side Effects.
Dr. Jonathan Banks is a professionally ambitious psychiatrist who comes into contact with troubled Emily Taylor after it appears she has tried to take her own life. With a history of anxiety she is struggling to adjust after her husband returns from prison. When the usual suspects don’t seem to be doing the job, Banks turns to a new drug called Ablixa, whose advertisements encourage patients to “take back tomorrow.” But like all mood altering meds, it has a couple of side effects.
Both of their lives are soon rocked when Emily is arrested for murder, seemingly while under the influence of her medication. Dr. Banks is then caught between a rock and a hard place. If he chooses to defend Emily against the charges, blaming the drugs for her actions, the finger of blame then turns to him as the man who prescribed the medication. As his career starts unravelling before his eyes, he sets about investigating the events to work out exactly what happened.
While we are not encouraged to believe that Emily’s condition doesn’t warrant medication, Soderbergh uses other peripheral characters to mount his criticism of an overmedicated society which has become reliant on mood altering drugs. We see one woman calmly popping a beta blocker to help her get through a job interview, while others share their knowledge and familiarity with the effects of the various mood altering medications that Emily has been prescribed. While this social commentary ultimately makes way for a reasonably regulation thriller narrative it is interesting while it’s there.
Jude Law and Rooney Mara carry much of the load in this film and both put in strong performances. Law gives Dr. Banks a very composed and measured personality, but as the events unfold he deteriorates, growing more and more desperate. It is interesting to watch this character who makes his living from helping people keep it together fall apart. Mara, who burst onto the scene with her roles in The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, delivers arguably her best performance, opting for subtlety when it would have been easy to go over the top.
Soderbergh’s body of work demonstrates an impressive stylistic range, with drastically different films like Traffic, Erin Brokovich, the Oceans 11 films and sex, lies and videotape. In this case he adopts a very neat, efficient and largely unobtrusive visual style. As well as directing the film, he acted as cinematographer (under his regular pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (this time as Mary Ann Bernard).
Steven Soderbergh has suggested that this will be his final feature film – though it should be noted that his made-for-TV Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is set to receive a cinematic release in some markets. From here on in he plans to focus his energies on other artistic pursuits, primarily long-form television. If Side Effects does end up being his parting gift as a feature filmmaker – which I’m not entirely convinced of – it is not a bad note to leave on. While it won’t sit among the very best examples of his work, it is a good thriller with an interesting central premise.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean