Behind the Candelabra Is Soderbergh's Crown Jewel

24 years after his debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d'Or, Steven Soderbergh might be the most buzzed about director at the moment.

He's either retiring from features or taking a hiatus (but stop asking). He recently gave a scathing, pull-quote worthy dispatch about the state of modern American cinema at the San Francisco International Film Festival. And his most recent film, Behind the Candelabra debuted at Cannes last week. But the problem is, for some, being boxed in by a TV, means it isn't a feature film.

See, Soderbergh couldn't make his Liberace biopic with studio money. It was "too gay" for theaters. According to Soderbergh the amount needed to make the film was only about $5 million, and no studios would. HBO stepped in to make it. Television. No theaters. No potential for Academy Award nominations and long award season glitz. Apparently that is now what makes a feature film (indeed many reviews feature lines such as "Soderbergh meant this to be a feature film"). Although, Behind the Candelabra is fantastic, and entirely deserving of a theatrical run that would afford the untrusted masses the ability to pay for a ticket and either debunk or illustrate the studios fears -- the best that we can do is write and talk about Behind the Candelabra as what it is: a great, big and rigorous feature film from an American auteur (such as Cannes did, by slating it in competition for the Palme d'Or). Many feature films get left on the sideline, or abandoned. HBO isn't the multiplex - but it had something that it knew was very good, and marketed it. It didn't let it die, it pushed it. It put ads on city busses. And it paid off.

Besides, apart from all this talk about whether or not Hollywood was too scared to put a larger scale gay film in theaters, there's something very interesting about it being released for home viewing. A constant middle ground approach to the issue of gay marriage, or gay topics is that refrain we've all heard: "I don't care what you do behind doors," with a hint of "just not in public." Behind the Candelabra is all closed doors -- the closed doors behind a mansion, the closed doors in Liberace's dressing room, the closed doors of a plastic surgeon's office, and ultimately, the closed chambers of the heart -- and now, the viewer must watch it behind closed doors, but that doesn't devalue the film.

The whole heart of the film lives within that controlling statement -- do what you want in privacy, and off the clock. Liberace (Michael Douglas), the famous Las Vegas performer, a dazzling showman who happens to be a piano virtuoso, is cloaked in furs and rings and surrounded by jewels on stage -- and young men at home, backstage, and behind all doors. His performances don't necessarily hide his sexual orientation so much as he doesn't address it. His role is to entertain, and he does.

There is a telling scene late in the film where Liberace is discussing his upcoming performance at the Academy Awards, a year that On Golden Pond won a wheelbarrow full of Oscars, and Liberace states (from the background, out of focus as Soderbergh focuses on Matt Damon, who plays Liberace's long time lover, Scott Thorson), "I'm so glad Jane Fonda's dropped all those awful causes and made a nice film with her father. Our job is to entertain the world and sell lots of drinks and souvenirs." From this juncture onward, the film can be seen as becoming political. Thorson and Liberace go through a bitter separation that is like a divorce in divvying up assets, however, a divorce isn't possible because obviously they couldn't marry. Thorson, a live-in boyfriend of five years, during which he was entirely separated from the work force and career pursuits, has no access to any amount of funds that would take care of him like a divorce safety-net afforded to heterosexual couples.

Perhaps this is what the studios, in a political climate, deemed too gay and not wanting to touch. I, however, think not. If you look at the two most mainstream gay Hollywood films that were widely distributed and had a budget four to six times the amount that Behind the Candelabra was asking for -- Brokeback Mountain and Milk, you'll see that the only thing that Candelabra shares with those films is sexual orientation (indeed, Soderbergh was surprised that Candelabra couldn't find studio money, post-Brokeback). Brokeback, however, was focused on the pain and struggle of attempting to repress homosexuality. For all the hubbub that it received for its one gay sex scene, and male kissing, there were three heterosexual sex scenes with their wives. Milk is about equality, and it ends with an assassination. Sexually, they both examine the struggles or joys of being out, in public.

Behind the Candelabra is not about repression, but not public. It is sexual, but private. Despite Thorson telling Liberace that he's bisexual, there are no women present to test this. In fact, the only female role in the entire movie is Liberace's mother (Debbie Reynolds, deliciously cast). If she is in any way a matriarch, then her scene asking for a check from her son for the amount of money she won playing a slot machine in his own casino-like mansion (thus a façade, for the only quarters in the machine would be from his guests and thus unable to pay out the extravagant winning dollar signs shown on the dial) is telling of the entire film: while possessing tragic (and comedic and loving) elements, Behind the Candelabra is mostly dominance and submission. People are cashing in on Liberace and when he feels that things are being taken from him, he shifts to molding others: in creating protégés, in crafting their wardrobe and indeed entire personas of others (in Thorson's case, even having his body and face molded through pills and plastic surgery).

In love there is a lot of give and take. There is definitely love in Liberace toward Scott. His giving is in opulence and his taking is in identity. Perhaps it's even love that the identity that Liberace creates is the one he'd like to have, when he's not behind closed doors. In what might be the best role of his career, Damon is fantastic as Scott. Previously goofed as a marionette in Team America: World Police, here Damon is an actual puppet, who crumbles in a heap when the strings are cut.

Soderbergh's career has been exciting -- always shifting from big studio to small and personal, embracing new technologies -- but the ace up his sleeve has always been sexual politics. Whether it's withholding sexuality in order to discuss it (sex, lies and videotape), exploring attraction sullied by societal duty (Out of Sight), or sex as a tool for currency (The Girlfriend Experience) or manipulation (Side Effects), Soderbergh has probably been this generation's best American voice on sexual politics, from impotence to identity. If Behind the Candelabra is his last film (yes, film) it is certainly, and fittingly, his crown jewel. Though Liberace loved the Oscars, he'd certainly accept an Emmy, for it to is golden, and a trophy of acceptance.

Behind the Candelabra is currently airing on HBO, and online via HBO Go, and Comcast Xfinity.