A ribald portrait of Walter Liberace, Behind the Candelabra (2013)

behind-the-candelabra-posterLiberace was one of the world’s highest paid entertainers from the 50-70’s and was highly regarded as a tenement of American popular culture, and music culture during his time in the limelight. It wasn’t until many years later, that the truth was let out about his lover and former chauffeur Scott Thorson, the ultimate evidence being Liberace’s aids related death during the 1980’s. Behind the Candelabra is based on Scott Thorson’s memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace (1988). It comes from Steven Soderberg, and as he claims is to be his last film for the time being, and it’s reported he’s recently become fed up with the means of production. Assuming that’s true, Behind the Candelabra (2013) is a good note to finish on, and it’s certainly a shame it wasn’t picked up by studios, and was relegated as a HBO TV Movie, regardless of it’s cinema release outside the states.

Taking up a more voyeuristic bio-pic style, the film focuses on one of Liberace’s lovers known as Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Scott is an adopted kid, under two very traditional, yet liberal parents who own a ranch. Scott goes with a friend to see one of Liberace’s performances. Scott is blown away by his talent, and thrilled to meet the star in the flesh as his friend takes him backstage. Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes a liking to Scott, as he hires him. Their business relationship soon becomes sexual, as the two move in together and are essentially married. All of this occurs as Liberace maintains a public facade that he’s straight, in fear of damaging his audience appeal. The relationship gradually derails as Scott becomes to loathe Liberace and his promiscuous ways, and his fabulous career slowly comes to an end.

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Steven Soderberg’s steadily paced, and psychologically honed style is perfect for Behind the Candelabra, as an audience we slowly dissect the happyness, the glamour, and the opulence and see this ribald, and unseen side of Liberace. He’s crude, promiscuous, and clearly lures young men in with promises of riches, and security. An incredible touch is when we see Liberace’s protege Billy Leatherwood scornful, and regretful of his association with Liberace, and in his first meeting we see Scott wonder why Billy acts the way he does. Towards the end, we see a shot with Scott in the exact same position in the frame acting passively aggressively as Liberace grooms male members of a warm-up act. Soderberg has an incredible attention to detail, and excels at very subtle and effective mis-en-scene and shot compositions. 

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The performances are unmissable. Michael Douglas is a relatively type-cast actor, usually plays the villain or supporting character. Yet, he manages to play this center of attention, this contradictory egotistical and flamboyant star as well as anyone could. The speech, the psychology and body language of the character, even the fluidity of the movements are all clearly honed in order to make the performance convincing. Matt Damon was also fairly commendable. There are also notable cameos by Dan Aykroyd as manager Seymour Heller, and an amusing and also disturbing supporting role by Robe Lowe as the clearly inept Dr. Jack Startz.

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Soderberg’s apparent retirement has a lot to do with the general unwillingness to fund his often unorthodox and controversial films. Several producers were quoted on claiming Behind the Candelabra was ‘too gay’. How ironic, considering the film’s topic matter of Liberace’s hidden sexuality. I thought we’d already gotten to the point where sexuality in cinema was pretty much open turf? Especially considering lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) just won the Palme D’or. The film presented some fantastic performances, offered a truly alternative function to the bio-pic, whilst being very entertaining. I’m a 19 year-old straight male, and I found the film interesting even though I don’t have a huge understanding of the cult following of Liberace, or an interest in gay culture, understandably.

Behind the Candelabra is a masterclass of direction, acting, and set-design and costuming. I’d highly recommend it. Thanks for reading, and follow me @Sams_Reel_Views 

 

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The Fighter (2010) – Blogaganza Part 2

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Film number 2 today as I look at The Fighter (2010) directed by Bafta-winning director David O’Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams.  The film is an American biographical sports drama film, depicting the life of professional boxers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Christian Bale as shamed former boxer Dick Eklund. I saw the film get relatively good critical acclaim but never got around to watching it, to be honest I’ve always avoided boxing in movies for some reason, I’m not too sure why, still need to watch Raging Bull. The film is a bio-pic but imitates documentary style at points as there’s contextually a documentary being made about Dicky during the course of the actual film which is quite an interesting metadiagetic thing. 

Dick Eklund in prison following his cocaine addiction.

Dick Eklund in prison following his cocaine addiction.

Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an average boxer, trying to make it in a world of talented, powerful boxers. He has an overbearing family that take over his life, most of which his brother Dick Eklund (Christan Bale) known for a controversial win over famous boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and his Mother (Melissa Leo). Dick used to be a decent boxer, but now is a washed up cocaine addict who ultimately drags Micky down, it’s not until he meets Charlene (Amy Adams) that his career starts to turn around for the best. After a ill-matched fight, after Micky is forced to fight a heavy-weight as his original opponent is out sick he considers a contract to train in Vegas. his family consider it mutiny as he and Charlene pair up with one of his father’s friends as he starts to take himself seriously as a boxer as he begins to train. Meanwhile Dicky reaches new lows and is taken to prison after attempting to con money out of people whilst using his girlfriend as a prostitute. Micky fights a tough opponent, but wins the fight through advice his brother gave him while visiting in prison, thus reluctantly when Dicky is released he is allowed to join the team again, now rejuvenated and drug-free. During the ultimate title-fight Micky shows the same symptoms of before, hugging the ropes, on constant guard. Dicky gives him a pep-talk, as Micky takes the fight to Shae Leary and wins the fight.

The title fight build-up.

The title fight build-up.

The performances in The Fighter are very solid, Christian Bale’s depiction of Dicky Eklund winning an academy award for best supporting actor, with Melissa Leo winning best supporting actress. Seeing Amy Adams break away from the sunny disposition is actually very refreshing, she can actually pull off a strong stern woman very convincingly and in my opinion was one of the strongest performances of the film. Mark Wahlberg was fine as Micky Ward, however the role seems relatively straight forward in terms of his character, with Micky prevailing despite the events happening around them, not because of them. In it’s biographical style it’s often said The Fighter is kind of a mixed bag in ways of what it portrays accurately. Director David O’ Russell claims the choreography for the fights are highly based on Micky Ward’s actual fights however, this is a confusing statement considering in his fight with Mike Mungin he was never knocked down and the fight was actually incredibly close and was decided by referee’s decision. This was obviously to emphasize the ill-suit of his family and mother being his manager. In the same vein the title fight against Shea Leary was highly altered as Micky Ward never went down, which again was clearly to milk dramatic tension. However, it’s use of old cameras during fight sequences to capture the old aesthetic is a genius idea, and David O’ Russell also used a former HBO director in order to replicate the fights shot by shot. 

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At face value The Fighter is a boxing film, however there are several themes and motifs that diversify it as an interesting film. Family is a big element in The Fighter, his family hinder and harass him, and put a serious strain on Micky’s relationship with Charlene and ultimately make him quit boxing. However, Dicky is also the big inspiration that gets him to continue boxing, and ultimately he in part owes his title victory to him. I also like that at no point does it flatter Micky, he’s a good boxer but he’s not sensational, he’s not a star. He needs honing, good training, and the support of his family and spouse and it’s the culmination of effort that allows Micky to win. 

Verdict = B The Fighter is a good film, with some serious thought put into it, with good performances and fine direction. Ultimately it’s done well to receive two academy awards for a film that was almost trashed and suffered from serious recasting issues (Aronofsky, and Brad Pitt were originally on board). The fighter has a perfect mix of drama, tension, and boxing and is certainly worth a watch, however if you’re looking for ‘Realism’ go watch Tyson, and if you’re looking for high drama go watch Rocky. Until next time folks, please Follow/Like/Comment, and Follow me @Sams_Reel_Views