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I've been tough on Steven Soderbergh lately (read my TONY takedowns of The Informant! and Side Effects)—something which gives me no pleasure since, up to and including his great Cockney-abroad thriller, The Limey (1999), he was a favorite and formative filmmaker. But pickings have been slim of late: Only Soderbergh's 10-episode HBO series about Washington politicos, K Street (2003), struck me as a rousing success, while the minor pleasures of his Spalding Gray requiem, And Everything Is Going Fine (2010), and his male stripper melodrama, Magic Mike (2012), couldn't counteract indifferent dross like the three Ocean's films or obsessive-compulsive, here's-another-one-for-ya efforts like Che (2008).
Never count anyone out. On the eve of his much-discussed retirement from moviemaking, Soderbergh has given us a masterpiece. Behind the Candelabra, a look at the tempestuous relationship between the flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much-younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), has many of the hallmarks of late Soderbergh. You've got your digital cinematographic palette composed primarily of peaky browns and yellows. You've got a highly clinical approach to the subject matter that creates a most unsettling distance (here, two brief, but very graphic plastic surgery scenes encapsulate the sick-inducing dissociation of the director's post-Limey oeuvre). Yet Soderbergh's antiseptic touch turns out to be a perfect match for this queerest of real-life tales, the cool-headed complement that allows the story's knotty emotions to slowly crescendo to a stunning, shattering apex.
We meet Thorson first as he's picked up in a gay bar by Liberace acquaintance Bob Black (Scott Bakula, rocking a John Holmes 'stache). After some fleet scene-setting—Thorson lives a semi-idyllic existence with his step-parents on a ranch, working with animals on movie sets and leaving his sexuality non-discussed but silently understood—the fresh-faced lad takes a weekend trip to Las Vegas where the "star of the show" makes his bejeweled, bedazzling entrance.
Douglas's Liberace could have been another in a long line of straight-playing-gay awards bait, like Tom Hanks or Sean Penn's preordained martyrs in, respectively, Philadelphia (1993) and Milk (2008). But the Hollywood scion known for his emphatic, enthused onscreen bedding of Sharon Stone and Demi Moore plays this kitschy piano man as a full-blooded character from first frame to last. The surface is all there: The lilting voice, the seducer's smile, the ornate costumes and the swishy peacock strut. Yet Douglas goes far beyond impersonation, revealing Liberace's deep-rooted melancholy and manipulativeness; if he wasn't real, Fassbinder would have made him up.
Watch Douglas in the tour-de-force scene where Liberace relates the story of his lifetime commitment to Christianity—complete with ethereal white-garbed nun—and revel in how deadly earnest the actor makes the confession. There's not an ounce of look-at-the-freak condescension; you understand immediately that this man's soul has different compartments for Catholic dogma, closeted communality, and promiscuous queer expression. It's not for others to judge, even if they do. ("People see what they want to see," Liberace tells Thorson when one of their intimate encounters is witnessed by a housemaid.) But a great price is still paid for keeping the contradictory parts of oneself so rigidly separated.
Damon matches Douglas' efforts in every particular; if the Cannes jury is considering Candelabra for an acting prize it should go to both performers. Like his costar, he recognizes that couplehood is as much based on unconscious connection as physical attraction. It makes perfect sense that when Liberace insists on literally remaking his toyboy Adonis in his own image (Rob Lowe is a splendidly stretch-faced presence as the plastic surgeon who fosters the couple's downfall with a series of surgeries and an addictive prescription pill diet) that Thorson is an almost unhesitating participant in the plan.
Unhealthy obsession goes hand-in-hand with exalted adoration. There's a degree to which Thorson is an audience of one—as blinkered by Liberace as any of the clueless women who long for more than a chaste glance from their beloved superstar, but close enough to his idol (to his "father, brother, lover and best friend") that he can't help but have a little more of his soul sucked out than most. Love is love, though, and there's never any doubt that these men share an amorous connection in all of its wonderful, horrible complexity; the film would make a great double bill with Stephen Frears' bad-gay-romance Prick Up Your Ears (1987).
Emotions run high, especially as the duo's relationship winds its way through vase smashing days and porn booth nights to a very bitter end. But Soderbergh takes things much further—through a coldly matter-of-fact legal battle, through the end-times ravages of the early days of AIDS—into a gaudy great beyond. I feel safe in saying that the final sequence of Behind the Candelabra, with its pointed and poignant conflation of devout spirituality and let's-put-on-a-show sentiment, is one of the most beautiful, most moving scenes Soderbergh has ever directed. Should this indeed be his last effort for the screen (and make no mistake, though the film is being released as an HBO telemovie in the states, it is a full-fledged work of cinema), this soaring finale is as fine a capper to a career as any artist could wish.
All involved—you especially, Mr. Soderbergh—take a bow.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich