Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA: Career Camouflage

Scott, golden and alluring, hangs out in a gay pickup joint. His 70s-moustachioed beau takes him to Vegas for the weekend and there he is awed by the specactle and skill of a Liberace show. Gets better. Backstage is the man himself whose glittering gaze is fixed upon him, charming everyone in the incandescent glare of the dressing room with wit and champagne. To one side, tucking into a steak and a grumble in his eye, Liberace's protege quietly seethes, tired of this blinding bubble and not long for its protection.

Scott moves in with the big L, who insists on being addressed as Lee, and sinks into its jacuzzi-warm glow with an opioid smile. When bitchface houseboy gives him the word about favouritism he mentions it to Lee who buys the boy off. Scott has been spied as a gem in the slime of the land and retrieved from it by this latter day Byzantine eminence. The taste is not just good it's addictive. We know without effort that Scott himself will be wearing the same frown as the protege before the third act opens.

That's basically it for plot but it carries much about fame, love, luxury, the duplicity of public life just as effortlessly. Performances don't come much better than these from a director who showed from his debut how careful he is with actors. Matt Damon builds from naive to explosive, by turns empathetically true and wildly unhinged. Rob Lowe seems to have been squeezed from outtakes of Wild at Heart, nearly Dadaist in his self-administered grotesquery. But it is Michael Douglas in a career best turn as Liberace, a kind of crumbling pastry in a toupe, who shows, beneath the Arabian Nights glitz, the vulnerability of his subject but also how convincing his charm must have been.

This is a Stephen Soderberg film, the first of his post-cinema efforts (though it's currently in cinema release outside the HBO diaspora (ie the USA). Having sworn off the big screen and pledged allegiance to the slightly smaller ones in the loungerooms of his new jurisdiction, he has come forth with this most cinematic of pieces. Well, why not? If we echo the sentiments of critics worlwide about US cable television being more gravely cinematic than the ever lighter fare at the multiplex then he has chosen depth over surface.

Maybe it's more guaranteed distribution (through legit channels and torrents) for the less mainstream fare he has been getting better at since Sex, Lies and Videotape way back in the 80s. Soderberg has always been interesting to me for the ease with which he leaps from an Oceans blockbuster to the Che films without breaking his stride and lensing the lot himself. If an auteur he's one less by style than pluck. And now he moves into cable tv where he might, having influenced some of its triumphs (think of Hung or Weeds or really quite a lot of Breaking Bad and Mad Men), go productive but unnoticed.

Perhaps his choice of subject makes it more of a matter of hiding in plain sight, the real movie director among the cable barkers. Well, Scorsese helmed the Boardwalk pilot. Peter Medak of the great Changeling and Ruling  Class has been tv-ing for decades now in Homicide, The Wire, Carnivale, Breaking Bad and Hannibal. They are not alone but he almost is in that he has publicly stated the permanence of his crossover.

What I know is that unlike a lot of what I have seen and celebrated in everything from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad Soderberg here is showing a lot of restraint. If I say the gayness of this story is light I don't mean it's trivialised but that it is rendered natural, the relationship between Scott and his lover/benefactor is more important than its sexuality. This might be considered standard fare for cable tv but the care in it is rendered without show. Where many of these setpieces and fraught emotive scenes might be given a harder or over-protesting cinematic muscle, Soderberg chooses what would work as well on the big screen. Scott's drugged up paranoia scene with its handheld wayward focus making us feel the same as him is an example. On The Sopranos that scene would have ended in violence. Here it's an intensifier for the arc. He's less interested in impressing than say an Oliver Stone might be if he made the same career choice.

It's been a long time since Laura Palmer's fingernail was wincingly penetrated by tweezers in Twin Peaks (on that read this, it's good). That and the other Lynchian moments lifted the tv of its time into home cinema that drove quite directly to the great cable-led recovery of now. It was ostentatious and daring. Now that everything is it might well be time for something more artisan-like and less brash to get to us in our loungerooms. This would be a good start.

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