As fabulous as it should be and not a jot more or less, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra is a showbiz biopic about, in no particular order, gender, sex, power, professionalism, performance, denial, disavowal, spectatorship, and the closet. Adapted from Scott Thorson’s tell-all book about his affair with Liberace, the Vegas nightclub star known only by his surname, the movie marries the stringent style and purposeful intelligence of its director/cinematographer/editor with the world of a performer defined by his excess. The result is irresistibly entertaining. Not to beat a hard-working horse long ago put to pasture, but Behind the Candelabra is everything Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There was not. On the other hand, it’s tidier but less heart-wrenching than Haynes’s glam-rock musical Velvet Goldmine. Which is to say that Haynes’s depiction of performance as drag—both on and off the stage, and regardless of the performers’ sexual preferences—was somewhere in Soderbergh’s mind.
Like Velvet Goldmine did 15 years ago, Behind the Candelabra premieres in Competition at Cannes on May 21, and, at the halfway point, the 2013 festival needs its dazzle and drive. Based on my experience of a preview DVD, the bigger the screen the better for this made-for-HBO movie, which American subscribers get to see on May 26, just hours after the prizes are announced in the Grand Théâtre Lumière. If the jury process here weren’t so political, I’d bet on Matt Damon for Best Actor.
All movies about couples privilege one half of the duo above the other. Here it’s Scott (Damon) who gets the first close-up and the last, and it is his point of view that dominates the narrative. A hunky Californian gay kid with a surfer’s dirty-blond bob, Scott is pimped to Liberace (Michael Douglas) whose current live-in boyfriend is on his way out. Scott gets a preview of his own inevitable exit even before his romance with the bewigged, bejeweled, piano-tinkling idol of millions of blue-haired, middle-aged women begins, but it’s only human to believe that one is special, an exception to the routine course of an affair. Especially when someone extremely famous tells you that he wants “to be everything to you: father, brother, lover, best friend.” Liberace—“Call me Lee”—is lavish when in love, and Scott is too smitten and too dumb to get certain things in writing (like the deed to an apartment of his own).
Soderbergh charts the course of this relationship—the ecstatic sex, the plateau of intimacy, the melodramatic fall from grace—with wit, economy, and a dose of irony à la Douglas Sirk. The camera plan is simple: graceful long dolly shots, locked-down close-ups for tête-à-têtes, and a bit of handheld jiggling when Scott loses it to booze, diet pills, and coke. The editing is pointed and often hilarious, as in the outrageously abrupt cut to Scott enthusiastically fucking Lee up the ass, poppers and all.
Which gets me to the meat of the matter. To a certain degree, it is a stunt to have two presumed heterosexual stars guided by a presumed heterosexual director in the depiction of a gay sexual relationship involving Liberace, one of show business’s most flagrant queens, and his protégé Scott, who quickly learns to love his white satin chauffeur’s uniform and rhinestone G-string. Yes, there was Brokeback Mountain, which by comparison barely whispered its forbidden desire. In Behind the Candelabra, two major stars play gay all the way and have a conspicuously good time doing it. And in fact, there is nothing as liberating for actors as flaunting behaviors that they have suppressed all their lives in order to present themselves to the world as properly straight or properly upper-middle-class, or just plain proper. Damon and Douglas take the risk of jumping into the hot tub together. After the first 10 minutes, they vanish as actors, leaving on screen simply Scott and Lee, who, if not for the closet, might have made a marriage as good and bad as that of anyone else.
P.S. I just saw Behind the Candelabra on the big screen, and size does maximize the pleasure. But if you’re watching on TV, pump up the volume. It may be a Fifties melodrama done Seventies-style, but the sound design is up to the minute, and it’s great.