Television has long been fascinated with telling the life tales of famous personalities. These personalities that lead lifestyles with a mixture of fabulous and tragic tend to fascinate with the excess and the desire and the wish fulfilment, while also hinging on the fact that they tend to die either young, or tragically, or frequently both and, well, that life in suburbia doesn’t look quite so bad when you figure that. Still, it’s curious that two of these larger than life personalities should not only get granted made-for-television biopics within weeks of each other, but that they’re both made by directors with considering talent and clout. It’s a shame then that only one rises above its kitsch trappings.
Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final feature project (but who can tell, really?) is Behind the Candelabra about closeted piano player Liberace. Despite the presence of Soderbergh behind the camera and Richard LaGravenese behind the page, Candelabra is a surprisingly straight-forward biopic. While Soderbergh grants the film a lush, shiny surface on which to hang the drama, it’s a shame that he and laGravenese kept the material so rote. The first hour is incredibly entertaining, full of vivid character portrayals and fulls of sets and costumes that sparkle both literally and figuratively. It’s sad then that it becomes so fixed into A-to-B-to-C style structure that it begins to suffocate. Its final passages, as well acted as they are, lose potency and, thus, the intimate power that Soderbergh was obviously striving for. At least it remains a keen, sly sense of humour. I suspect I’ll be chuckling about Rob Lowe and the absurdity of Liberace wanting his younger lover to get plastic surgery to look more like him long after the credits rolled.
Behind the Candelabra was screened in competition as this year’s Cannes Film Festival and will also be released theatrically in some international territories (Australia, for instance, next week). I would have liked to have seen it presented on the big screen because I suspect many of Soderbergh’s images (he again has enlisted himself as cinematographer, credited as “Peter Andrews”) would look divine on the big screen as devoted to mirrors, silver, and rhinestones as he is. Still, perhaps knowing that the project was first and foremost a HBO television movie curbed his creativity. There were visual and editing decisions made in the opening and closing minutes that reminded me very much so of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, but little else.
One of his strengths is in the way he subverts traditional narratives and finds interesting moments that other directors wouldn’t think twice about. He finds that here with the stunning near-silent performance of Cheyanne Jackson (Soderbergh has always been a master of the background actor) and the opening sequence inside a gay bar to the pulsating beat of Donna Summer’s gay anthem “I Feel Love”. But the second half feels bereft, like it’s going through the motions of what a television biopic should be. I’m hesitant to call it rushed, but it certainly feels more like he knew he had to cover certain moments above anything else, knowing he had to fit his film comfortably within a two hour time slot on a Sunday night. Consider Erin Brockovich and the way it covers a very traditional narrative by also finding moment smaller moments with its characters that help build into a more dynamic whole. I found that missing with Candelabra’s second half and it hampered my overall enjoyment of the film.
That’s a shame considering there really is a lot here worth celebrating. If nothing else, it’s nice to see Soderbergh embrace the material and not dumb down the sexuality or the flamboyance of its characters. Unlike some high profile films about gay characters (hi Philadelphia!), the two men at the centre of Behind the Candelabra are very open about their sexuality and their desires (even if they can’t be on the stage). There’s no mistaking it, and Michael Douglas and Matt Damon do a wonderful job in making their unconventional romance, with all the excessive Las Vegas sheen that it’s dipped in, feel true and genuine. When the two share a hottub or lie in bed, Soderbergh’s camera watches it and truly allows their bodies to be seen and identified as together. That’s a side of Soderbergh I’d never seen before. He’s shown characters be sexual before, sure, but the way these two men are portrayed is different. There’s a simplicity, a matter of fact frankness, to it that I liked. Much was made of the film’s Australian MA15+ rating (it has since been downgraded to an M) and I can’t help but suspect it was because these two characters are sexual and enjoy it. And even in the face of the AIDS disease that eventually claimed Liberace’s life, there’s no regret in what they shared.
Elsewhere the performances from the likes of Rob Lowe as a wonky-faced plastic surgeon, the aforementioned Cheyanne Jackson as a jaded protégée, Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother (how’s that for casting!), and Bruce Ramsay as a sexualised houseboy fill a typically sublime Soderbergh ensemble that also includes Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula (with one helluva moustache), Nicky Katt, and Paul Reiser. Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes are spectacular from Liberace’s elaborate stage outfits to the humorously slothful robes and caftans of his home wardobe, as is Howard Cummings production design with its ability to be at once ornate and vacuous.
I would have liked further examination of Liberace’s relationship with the public since it was such a defining part of his life. There’s a wonderful exchange early on between Damon and Scott Bakula who are attending a Liberace show when the two share their shock at audience’s not being aware that the piano-man is a big ol’ queen, only to have an old lady in front turn around and scold them with her eyes. Given the events that dominate the film’s second half – the relationship divorce, AIDS scandal that they didn’t want to admit – were so because of Liberace’s desire to not be known as a homosexual, I thought it was one aspect that could have been heightened and given the drama an added edge.
If Soderbergh’s Candelabra can’t keep its larger-than-TV ambitions going for the entirety of its runtime, then Mary Harron’s Anna Nicole never even attempts it. It’s a deflating experience to be sure given Harron is responsible for one of the greatest films of the ‘00s and had at once stage looked like she was set to become a defining name of the American independent cinema scene. Sadly, like so many female directors of her era (see also Patty Jenkins and Kimberley Pierce) the strange career that has befell her (I couldn’t even finish her vampiric YA adaptation The Moth Diaries) now sees her direct this lifeless biopic of Anna Nicole Smith. While the subject matter is actually a very interesting one, and something that would suit Harron perfectly given her history of looking at maligned figures in a clear-eyed fashion, she has unfortunately been laboured with a disappointing screenplay that does little to turn Anna’s life into anything but a string of typical tragic rags-to-riches clichés. There’s the deadbeat mother, the babies, the drink, the romance, the court-wrangling. No matter what Harron may or may not think about Anna Nicole, the screenplay by Joe Batteer and John Rice doesn’t see her life as nothing but a cliché.
I have little doubt that Harron could have worked the material into something unique if she wasn’t beholden to the usual tropes of a “TV movie”. There’s no personal stamp whatsoever on this project and if I hadn’t have known she’d directed it I wouldn’t have had any reason to believe the director of American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol was behind it. To be perfectly honest, given the great strides that television has made in usurping cinema as the go-to moving image artform, it’s even more disappointing that nobody would let her do it. The subject matter will pull in the curious gravewatchers no matter what, so why not allow her to go somewhat less traditional? Unless, of course, they did and then Anna Nicole is a sadder state of affairs than I initially feared. Harron tries what she can to inject the material with energy where she can, whether it’s in the colour of her costumes, the oddness of a scene clad in clown make-up, a surprising camera angle here or there, or with Agnus Bruckner’s committed performance, but the material (and the Lifetime home) just doesn’t permit her enough of a home to do so.
Where Harron and the film does succeed, however, is in treating its subject with due respect. The film seems obvious worth in Anna Nicole’s climb out of lower class squalor and it is never not on side with her, treating her like the trash that so many around her did. If anything, it takes the stance of her octogenarian husband played here by an affective Martin Landau of sympathetic admirer. It’s just a crying shame that a film about a person with so much lust for life isn’t itself as vibrant. To some, Anna Nicole Smith was a breath of fresh air, a bombshell who was smart enough to know what she needed to do to get ahead, but the film is stale and shows none of the ambition that was so important to its subject.