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Posts Tagged ‘Behind the Candelabra’

Time for yet another installment of New Cinema Review (it’s the summer, I’m living away from home, it’s inevitable) – this time, the Vue in the Westfield Centre (one of those big zombie malls you need a map to navigate around) in Shepherd’s Bush. I know I seem to be particularly partial to Vues, especially when there are lots of independent cinemas around that barely seem to get a look in, but Vue seems to be the best of the major UK multiplex chains and their website is extremely user-friendly.

Although perhaps not quite as good at flagging up the key information as it should be. I arrived in plenty of time for my film, which didn’t seem to appear on the main information screens behind the ticket desk. Nevertheless, when I reached the front:

‘One for Behind the Candelabra, please,’ I said.

The ticketeer checked his rinky-dinky little screen. ‘It’s showing in the Scene area,’ he informed me. ‘That’ll be nineteen pounds.’

‘Nineteen pounds for one ticket! Dearie me,’ I said, unprintably. Nevertheless, changing my plans for the day would have been a pain in the neck and possibly involved going in to see another film blind, which I didn’t much fancy. So I fished out my debit card.

‘Where do you want to sit?’ the ticketeer enquired.

‘On a throne, if I’m paying nineteen quid for it,’ I said. (The shocking news of this outrageous pricing policy had affected my usual courteous good temper in a negative fashion.) However, the ticketeer had been through the Multiplex Staff Personality Obliteration Process and just dumbly showed me the little screen with icons of seats on it.

Eventually I was allowed to trundle off to the VIP Scene area, which had a bar. (I initially thought this programme might be called Seen, as in ‘They Must Have Seen Me Coming’.) To be fair, the seats in the VIP screens are nice, and you do get a little table to put your soft rolls and lemonade on, but the screen itself wasn’t fantastically better than the one I saw Hummingbird on later that day. And even after paying nearly twenty quid, you still have to sit through the ****ing adverts: the annoying animated one for a carbonated orange drink, the weird one about the French social climber who prefers beer to women, the one with the talking Spanish beer, they were all still there. There was also one where the Cirque du Soleil play pelota on a bridge between a glacier and a volcano: this, obviously, is to advertise coffee. Honestly, sometimes I think civilisation has already collapsed into a decadent mire and we’re all just too self-absorbed to notice.

None of which is really very informative when it comes to Behind the Candelabra, which I suspect is what you’re actually reading this to find out about. This is another offering from the Soderbergh Collective – technically they’ve already retired, of course, and this film actually originated as a TV mini-series in the USA a few years ago.

candelabra

The reason why it didn’t make it into American theatres despite having a big-name director and two A-list stars in the lead roles is the subject matter. Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, a young Californian working as an animal trainer in the late 1970s. He is gay, and through a friend is introduced to the entertainment superstar Liberace (Michael Douglas).

(Do people these days need to be told who Liberace was? I suspect so. Basically, Liberace was a virtuoso piano-player and showman, who by the 70s had become a massive international star and an institution in Las Vegas. His act and public persona were noted for a degree of – er – ostentatious flamboyance, but such was the level of control he exerted over these things that when the Daily Mail printed an article revealing he was homosexual, he was able to sue them for libel and win.)

Well, Liberace and Scott hit it off almost at once, especially when Scott is able to procure some medicine for one of the star’s poodles. Very much at Liberace’s instigation, Scott moves in and takes on a job as his paid companion, confidant, driver, and wig-keeper. Their romantic relationship continues apace in tandem with this.

And what follows is essentially the story of their relationship over the next decade, until Liberace’s death from an AIDS-related condition in 1986: its development, which takes some decidedly odd turns, its decline, and its fractious ultimate collapse (although there was apparently something of a reconciliation prior to the very end).

Now, one thing you can say about the Soderberghs is that they are a fair-minded bunch who play by the rules: if they do an action movie, it’s going to have proper set-piece fights in it. If they do a movie about male strippers, it’s going to have some male stripping in it. And if they do a movie about a gay relationship, it’s going to have various scenes of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in bed (or a bubble bath) together. The movie walks the line between prudishness and prurience rather well, although some of the dialogue is still quite explicit – this is always a film focussing on the central relationship, the fact that it’s between two men is almost incidental.

As a movie about what I can only call an assymmetrical relationship (one of the participants is much older, wealthier, and more powerful than the other), there isn’t a great deal that’s very novel here – Scott’s falling more and more under Liberace’s sway (even to the point of having plastic surgery to resemble him) somehow doesn’t feel as peculiar or (in the circumstances) unsettling as it should. The eventual slide into drug addiction, infidelity, and an ugly legal wrangle feels rather familar too.

That said, there are some amusingly bizarre scenes with Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon who has, perhaps, partaken rather too much of his own wares, and some of the fashions and hairstyles on display inevitably have a certain charm. On the whole, though, this is a movie which succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the central performances. And Damon is simply very good in what’s probably the easier and certainly the less showy role. Douglas is by no means bad, but it’s his replication of Liberace’s stagecraft and particularly his piano-playing which is most obviously impressive. Some of the rest of the time, his performance is almost that of a stereotypically needy and possessive older gay man.

The Soderberghs direct with their customary verve and skill and this is an entertaining and involving movie. But, once you take away all the rhinestone trappings and period styling, there’s nothing tremendously innovative going on here in terms of either characterisation or plot. The actors are very good, but they’re big-name stars in what ultimately boils down to quite a standard and formulaic bio-pic. Worth watching by all means, just not particularly essential.

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