Skip to main content

Not bad for an old bag, huh?


Behind the Candelabra
(2013)

For a generation, knowledge of Liberace is probably limited to a passing gag in the first Austin Powers movie; “Yeah, and I can’t believe that Liberace was gay”. And so it appears was the blissful ignorance of the majority of star’s (predominately female) fan base. And yet the word flamboyant might have been invented for the performer.  Steven Soderbergh’s final film before his retirement/hiatus (albeit as director of a TV movie; without pause he has embarked on a mini-series, so his statements of intent should be viewed as lightly fried bullshit) was long in the planning, but a director known for his almost clinical reticence is perhaps the wrong guy to bring the story of an exemplar of excess to the screen.


The idea of Michael Douglas playing Liberace had been first mooted when the star and director first collaborated on Traffic. It wasn’t until 2008 that Richard LaGravenese was commissioned to adapt Scott Thorson’s memoir and Damon agreed to play Thorson. And then Soderbergh had trouble getting it off the ground because it was “too gay”. Like many of the better “biopics”, Behind the Candelabra tackles only a chunk of Liberace’s life, rather than the whole deal. So many true-life stories descend into a string of “and then this happened” scenes plopped next to each other with little impact. Instead we meet Liberace in his late 50s as he embarks on a relationship with Thorson, a 17-year old animal trainer. The film covers the final decade of the star’s life but focuses mainly on the four-year period during which they were together, and the subsequent messy fall-out. 


From the first moments, Soderbergh signposts that this is takes place during coked up excess of the ‘70s; we hear Donna Summer disco on the soundtrack. But anyone expecting wild (or gay) abandon will be disappointed. This film may have been expensive by TV movie standards ($23m), but it feels like a TV movie; limited in canvas and stylistic flourish (the craziest Soderbergh gets is his woozy-vision when Scott is high as a kite, but his camerawork is strictly intoxication-for-beginners). For all the decadence he’s decided on show, his approach feels very staid. I’m not sure Philip Kaufman (originally attached to a Liberace film with – God help us – Robin Williams) would informed the debauchery of the period better than Soderbergh, but at least he has a track record with carnal escapades.



So the indulge, likewise the humour. There are lot of laughs to be had from the absurd environment Scott enters, but Soderbergh isn’t a natural funny man. Witty perhaps (The Informant!) but not someone who you’d trust to direct a farce. The vanity of the plastic surgery Liberace submits to (“Will I be able to close my eyes?”) is only surpassed by Scott going under the knife to look like him (“I guess I should be flattered, him wanting me to look like him”), and Damon covered in silly putty looks not unlike Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness after he’s been stretched. Rob Lowe appears as a surgeon whose own face is so pulled it hurts to look at (Lowe’s very good, but he almost doesn’t even need to open his mouth to have an impact). Then there’s Liberace’s desire to adopt Scott (“Why would a grown man want to adopt another grown man”).


But the first half of the picture meanders along, assuming that immodesty and saturnalia are sufficient drivers. LaGravenese script only develops a motor when the brewing dissatisfaction between Scott and Liberace blows. But even then, Scott’s disintegration feels familiar from other ‘70s period movies we’ve seen over the last decade or so (Boogie Nights instigating the cycle).


We are given little insight into Scott, although we spend most of the duration with him and are unquestioningly asked to sympathise with; he doesn’t come across as a gold digger, nor does he appear passionately smitten with the pianist. At least, Damon doesn’t sell us the idea that he is. Scott comes across as curiously passive, up until the point where Liberace moves on to fresh younger pickings. But the realisation of Scott iillustrates the problem with Soderbergh’s work all over; he’s too cool-headed to engage emotionally with a subject, particularly one that is all about (perhaps superficial) intensity and excess. He has set up a highly interior environment anyway, based in Scott’s literally closeted world, so we need greater understanding of him than we get; for example, we never see the reaction to his plastic surgery from his adopted parents (the movie seems to be leading to a homecoming, but then it occurs off screen).


And, aside from Damon being not quite there in terms of performance, there’s the issue of a man in his 40s playing someone 25 years younger. You never for a moment think that Scott is supposed to be 17, and so much of the nature of Liberace’s predilections fails to translate. Douglas may have been 10 years-too-old, but that’s a fairly by-the-by mismatch. And this isn’t bemoaning a lack of fidelity to the facts; it’s simply that a central point regarding the relationship doesn’t carry due to the casting.


Douglas is having a lot of fun as Liberace, and he’s entertaining, but what he’s doing feels like more of an impersonation than an immersive performance. That isn’t entirely his fault. Liberace is mostly glimpsed through Scott’s eyes, and it’s only occasionally that the veil drops. Rather than in the obvious areas of toupee and paunch, this is strongest in his relationship with his mother (an amazing, unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds; her “I’ll take a cheque” on winning at Liberace’s slot machine is priceless). Liberace goes through the motions of grief upon her passing, before informing Scott that he is finally free of her. As his peccadillos, one might expect him to take the blame in the relationship rather than Scott. The plastic surgery he coerces Scott into is absolutely loony, but the trouble of having a 40-year-old actor play his young buck is that Scott simply seems a bit dumb or to have concealed motives to permit this kind of manipulation.


Dan Aykroyd shows up for a typical Dan Akyroyd supporting part (as Liberace’s manager), while Scott Bakula does some great ‘70s porn ‘tache acting as the guy we assume headhunts Liberace’s young prospects.


Soderbergh’s approach of taking on projects as formal exercises ensures they bear the tell-tale signs of films made from the brain, not from the heart. Sometimes that works (the mind games of Side Effects), sometimes it falters (the action of Haywire is shorn of any rush of adrenaline). Here he has a great story to tell, but brings few insights. And, while he’s made something as superficially entertaining as Liberace’s glitzy attire, he has no real affinity for the accompanying extravagance or outrageousness.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Hello Johnny, how are you today?

Twin Peaks 3.10: Laura is the one.
(SPOILERS) I’ve a theory that all it takes to tip a solid episode of Twin Peaks (in any season) into a great one are three or four slices of sublime strangeness. The rest can hum along amiably, in contrast to that electricity the Log Lady has something to say about, but it’s those scenes that define the overall shape and energy. Laura is the one has a good three or four, and maybe the funniest sustained Lynchian visual gag so far.

That comes in the form of the Mitchum brothers, or to be more precise Robert Knepper’s Rodney. He’s aided and abetted by Candie (Amy Shiels), part airhead, part fruit bat, attempting to swat a fly while Rodney examines casino surveillance logs. And like most of the director’s comic gold, this goes on and on and on, and you absolutely know it will end with Rodney getting clobbered. I wasn’t expecting it to be with the TV remote, though.

I’m not certain Candie’s mental state, sustained though it is, is going to be about anyth…

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound (1945)
Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…