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Knight at the Movies: Behind the Candelabra; Portrait of Jason
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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It's perhaps fitting that Steven Soderbergh—who won the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1989 for his breakthrough feature, the sexually challenging Sex, Lies & Videotape—is once again at the fest with another sexually provocative film just as he is about to take a much-publicized break from making movies.

Soderbergh's swan song (for now at least) is Behind the Candelabra, a backstage look at the relationship between the flamboyant entertainer/pianist Liberace and his lover and companion of six years, Scott Thorson. Whether or not this darkly funny film—which is at times dishy, campy, at moments surprisingly moving, and naturally, gay as a goose—takes any prizes (the fest ended last night after WCT deadlines), it's clearly the work of a filmmaker still relishing the chance to push the envelope.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, who play the title roles ,willingly follow the lead of their adventurous director and go for broke in their portrayals. It's a toss-up as to who gives the better performance. Douglas delivers the mincing, dimwitted Walter "Lee" Liberace in all his sequined, bejeweled, and (mostly) bewigged glory as well as the sexually voracious narcissist whose complicated interior life is occasionally hinted at. As Scott Thorson, Damon has a field day as the not-so-innocent raised in foster homes who is dazzled by the excessive lifestyle that his paramour offers and whose downfall comes after taking to heart his mentor's financial promises and for indulging in the sybaritic pleasures of the late '70s (cocaine and prescription drugs) the times were noted for. Both subtly get past what could easily have been just caricatures. (Damon's hurried walk, for example, matches what we perceive must have been a reflection of his anxiety about his newfound status.)

The actors are also fearless when it comes to the physical aspects of the characters—Douglas unapologetically gives us the paunchy, middle-aged queen, sipping champagne with his muscle-bound young lover in his sauna, gasping at his own crow's feet during an appearance on The Tonight Show and going under the knife for yet another plastic surgery, while Damon bulks up to be convincing as he struts around in a thong. And neither actor holds back during the sex scenes. (At one point, Liberace harps on Scott for not bottoming at least once in a while.) They kiss, cuddle and make love with wild abandon (while seeming to have a contest with the audience about who can provide the most butt shots).

Richard LaGravanese's script (based on Thorson's memoir) tracks the twisted love affair from 1977 to the mid-80s. The visually tacky time period, combined with the over the top nature of Liberace's Las Vegas lifestyle (authentically recreated), his kitsch taste (inspired by King Ludwig) which permeated his home and stage shows, not to mention the man's colorful companions (a rogue's gallery that includes his mother, a really creepy plastic surgeon, a snarling houseboy, and a supplicant of a manager) all aid in freshening up the familiar trajectory of the dysfunctional relationship. Expert supporting turns by Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, and Cheyenne Jackson (as a previous boy toy) add to the fun. As do the maudlin, treacle-infused piano tracks (supervised by the late Marvin Hamlisch, to whom the film is dedicated).

Soderbergh has always been fascinated with outsider characters like Liberace and he gifts the movie with small details that underscore this. In embedding these details he again reveals a gifted filmmaker at work (a pack of dogs introduced at the outset in Liberace's arms, for example are never again seen but are heard yapping in other rooms of the home as the relationship disintegrates, upping the tensions). The final sequence, which recalls the finale of All That Jazz, is a bittersweet triumph of both kitsch and heart—Liberace, no doubt, would have loved it.

The movie's biggest flaw is that it's weighted too heavily in Thorson's favor (no surprise, given the source material) and that it doesn't do more to reveal the many incongruities in Liberace, this one of a kind, decidedly strange man whose gigantic popularity is still hard to fathom. This is especially evident when cracks here and there in the sunny Liberace facade are shown (in his relationship with his mother especially).

It's been eight years since Brokeback Mountain, the first high profile movie to feature two straight actors engaging in gay sex. That fact alone put Ang Lee's film on everyone's radar. But subsequent queer themed movies have not had the same fascination for wide audiences (I Love You Phillip Morris, anyone?) and it's not really surprising that Behind the Candelabra, after initially being readied for a studio release, instead found itself being paid for by a cable distributor after nerves set in (HBO, who will premiere the movie on May 26).

Something perceived to be this "gay" is still not thought of as a good box-office bet—the factor which determines what gets greenlit and what doesn't. So if there's been a change since Brokeback it's a subtle but very cool one—the enthusiastic embrace of gay roles by straight actors (slowly, the reverse is also becoming a reality—see my review of Star Trek Into Darkness for proof of that). Douglas and Damon have both had a fun time on the press circuit touting their willingness to get jiggy with one another on camera and it certainly shows.

Behind the Candelabra depicts without apology or condemnation the warts and all, highly sexed sugar daddy/bo-toy relationship of Liberace and Thorson—a type of relationship that has always been a staple of the gay community but never one explored so intimately by the movies. This too is an astonishing feat—and the movie does this in capital letters. So Soderbergh's going out with a double triumph—a movie that is as deeply entertaining and creative as it is socially enlightening.

Of related interest: The late Shirley Clarke, the mother of indie filmmakers, received little credit during her too brief life for her illuminating films. Perhaps the greatest realization of her art—which seemed to merge director and subject—is 1967's Portrait of Jason.

In December 1966 Clarke put Jason Holiday, a 33-year-old Black hustler and wannabe cabaret performer, in front of her camera; 12 hours later, she emerged with enough material to amass a masterpiece. Holliday, nee Aaron Payne, regales the viewer with hilarious tales of his fabulous, checkered life in a non-stop, fascinating monologue that is enormously entertaining.

For nearly two hours Holliday's infectious laugh punctuates his witty stories and insightful observations. Holliday (who died in 1998) was a born raconteur and we're definitely watching a self-invented creation who revels (as he should!) in his own hard-earned fabulousness. Fact and fiction surely commingle, but that seems to be part of the point.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society presents Milestone Films' restored 35mm print of Portrait of Jason (earlier planned for the Portage Theater) at the Music Box Wed., May 29, 7 p.m.

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