Michael Douglas’s faaaaabulous portrayal of Liberace won’t be eligible for an Oscar, since the droll Steven Soderbergh-directed biopic “Behind the Candelabra” debuts Sunday on HBO before playing theatrically (and talk about theatrically!) overseas.
However, Douglas’ jubilantly campy performance, which makes room for the insecure, closeted human being behind the minked and spangled facade, does seems certain for an Emmy. Meantime, the cancer survivor and “Wall Street” Oscar winner is a strong contender for the best actor award here at the Cannes Film Festival concluding with the awards ceremony, also on Sunday.
“Candelabra,” after which Soderbergh allegedly will be taking a hiatus from directing, comes from a script by Richard LaGravenese based on the tell-all written by Liberace’s lover, companion and eventual cast-off, Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon.
At the press conference following the 8:30 a.m. Tuesday Cannes premiere (tonight brings the official dress-up premiere), Douglas choked up, briefly, and brought the room to a hush with his acknowledgment that, following his cancer diagnosis, “this beautiful gift was handed to me. And I’m eternally grateful.”
Soderbergh first pitched a Liberace biopic to Douglas when they were working on “Traffic” several years ago. After several years of thanks-but-no-thanks from the studios — too gay, too niche-y, too whatever — Soderbergh and producer Jerry Weintraub found a home for the project at HBO.
TV, Soderbergh said, owns “the cultural real estate” in America right now. LaGravenese offered this simple comparison between TV and mainstream Hollywood movies: “You can have ambiguity in television.”
It’s an odd word to apply to any aspect of Liberace, the most outre showbiz specimen ever to hail from Milwaukee. Soderbergh’s film follows familiar and straightforward biopic contours, in its depiction of the relationship between Liberace and Thorson. But the humor’s carefully controlled (if anything the movie’s too straight), and Soderbergh’s penchant for low-key honesty brings out the best from all his actors, including an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as Lee's mama. Also, Rob Lowe as a Dr. Feelgood-styled plastic surgeon, his eyes looking like Jonathan Pryce’s dubious makeup job in “Miss Saigon,” garners enormous laughs simply by listening and nodding, silently, so that the full extend of what he’s done to himself facially can be absorbed by the audience.
Damon concluded the press conference by saying he and co-star Douglas were eager to scope out Damon’s Brazilian tan line in a couple of nude scenes, as projected this evening at the Grand Lumiere Theatre in Cannes for the black-tie premiere. “It’s, like, the biggest screen ever,” Damon joked. Once witnessed, that tan line, as the actor warned Soderbergh’s crew on set, is “not something you can un-see."
What lights up the Cannes sky?
“Where’s the lightning bolt?” After so much dour and rainy weather earlier this week at the Cannes Film Festival, it seems like bad luck to even ask such a question aloud.
Over the last couple of days, however, I’ve heard variation upon variation on this lightning-bolt question, from visiting critics, programmers and hybrid models waiting for a competition title worthy of the song the boxers sang to Cyd Charisse in “It’s Always Fair Weather”: “Baby, You Knock Me Out.”
Absent such rapture-inducing discoveries so far, it’s no wonder attention has turned to the good or very good. That list includes “Behind the Candelebra,” the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Asghar Farhadi drama “The Past” and two divisive titles from Cannes regulars, “A Touch of Sin” from the Chinese master Jia Zhangke, and seen Tuesday night in its world premiere, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s shamelessly Fellini-esque but quite beautiful ode to Roma, “The Great Beauty,” starring the splendid Toni Servillo as a celebrity journalist winding his way through a series of concentric social circles.
Less rewarding? For starters, there’s “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” director Arnaud Desplechin’s weirdly lifeless biopic set in Topeka, Kansas, featuring Benicio Del Toro as Native-American World War II veteran Jimmy Picard undergoing the talking cure with Mathieu Almaric’s French anthropologist Georges Devereux.
“A Castle in Italy,” another competition title not quite ready for prime time, comes from the excellent actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi , who also directed and co-wrote the script, teasing out an Etch A Sketch of a story involving the sale of a family castle. She’s never less than vivid in this ensemble comedy-drama, but the material and its focus on the travails of the rich and misunderstood comes to maddeningly little.
Much more this week, and soon. Bring on the lightning!