In a rare case of a TV movie playing in competition at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh’s HBO drama Behind the Candelabra (Grade: B) premiered at the festival on Tuesday. A surprisingly funny—if ultimately tragic— biography of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and longtime partner Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), this film features distinctive, eccentric performances from all involved, particularly the two leads. As a sex-charged showbiz rise-and-fall story, it plays like a more modest, minimal Boogie Nights (which spans roughly the same era), one that’s needlessly tidy and detached. Unfortunately, Soderbergh has little of substance to say about these colourful characters. He seems to mistakenly believe that the film’s gay emphasis is enough to distinguish Behind the Candelabra from the countless other romantic dramas that hit most of the same notes. The result is a film that feels oddly familiar, in spite of its provocatively frank treatment of gay sexuality.
During the film’s press conference, Soderbergh explained that he was unable to raise money to produce the film for theatrical release, though he insists that the medium of television had no major influence on his creative approach. Working with HBO certainly didn’t inhibit the director, who draws upon his usual bag of visual tricks, casts every role perfectly, and revels in the peculiarities of Liberace and Thorson’s relationship. Asked about dramatizing this relationship—and shooting sex scenes with Michael Douglas—Matt Damon was quick to cite an unanticipated upside. “I now have things in common with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close,” he said. “We can all go out now and trade stories.”
Like the film itself, this press conference proved to be quite lighthearted, though there was at least one emotional moment. While answering a question about the production, Douglas broke down, explaining that he began this project in the aftermath of his battle with cancer. Visibly proud of Behind the Candelabra, he expressed gratitude to Soderbergh, producer Jerry Weintraub, and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, describing the experience as a “beautiful gift.”