The following blog post is by Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, authors of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: Indie Sex, Corporate Lies, and Digital Videotape. You can also read an interview with the authors.
In our book, The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: Indie Sex, Corporate Lies and Digital Videotape, one of the issues that we argue distinguishes Soderbergh’s filmmaking career is his work as an “actor’s director.” This is certainly evident in Soderbergh’s supposed last feature film, Behind the Candelabra, with A-List stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon’s unorthodox portrayals of Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson.
As we explain in our book, Soderbergh’s films are marked by extremes between the poles of realism, modernist and (sometimes) postmodern excess. This rule of thumb applies to Behind the Candelabra, which is marked by its precise attention to historical detail in the form of the film’s re-creation of Liberace’s tastes in decorating (which he describes as “palatial kitsch”) but at the same time, relies on the audience’s foreknowledge of its stars, their heterosexuality and, thus, their playing against type.
This is certainly the case in Michael Douglas’ performance as the famously flamboyant pianist. The role is not only one of the most complex of his career, but one of the most complex characters within Soderbergh’s oeuvre. In terms of realism, Douglas concentrates on getting the most important details right to play Liberace—the voice and his mannerisms—in order for the audience to accept Douglas as the Vegas showman. Similar to other biographical portraits in Soderbergh’s body of work (Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, Benecio del Toro as Che Guevara) this involved a great deal of research on the part of actors in order that they convincingly play the real-life figures.
On the other hand, there is a modernist streak in these performances which is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s concept of theatrical “distanciation.” In Candelabra, it is impossible to separate Michael Douglas and Matt Damon from the characters they play, adding intertextual weight to the film. Douglas’ performance is particularly striking in this regard, as the film relies on the spectator’s foreknowledge of Douglas’ star persona—seen in his most famous roles as uber-capitalist Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, put-upon adulterer in Fatal Attraction and disgruntled everyman in Falling Down—to present a radically different image to the audience. His portrayal as a gay man in this film, then, directly opposes his career-long trend of playing hyper-heterosexual and volatile characters in Basic Instinct and other movies.
That he is playing a gay man is perhaps secondary to the shock of seeing Douglas’s frail, bald, and saggy body. In our book, we label the willingness of actors to transform themselves within Soderberghian films as “dirtied stardom,” such as Matt Damon’s unflattering role in The Informant!, where he is mustachioed, obese and bald, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s character’s gruesome autopsy in Contagion. “Dirtied Stars” actively go to extremes in order to destabilize or shock the viewer by playing against their star image. In Candelabra, the most striking scenes involve Douglas and Damon displaying their bodies in very different ways than audiences are expecting—not only by way of their nudity but via graphic scenes of plastic surgery, which are far more visceral in their peeling back the veneer of stardom than the experience of seeing Douglas and Damon perform homosexual acts.
It is impossible, then, to see Douglas as anything less than a combination of the realistic (and historical) details of the real-life Liberace, combined with his attempt to work against his well-crafted star persona. The result is a paradoxical fusion of both these elements—Michael Douglas as Liberace—which is typical of performances within Steven Soderbergh’s cinema.
Returning to the director, we can see how these performances necessarily rely on an environment where the actors feel comfortable enough to present themselves at their most vulnerable. The director’s ability to push his actors beyond their previous performances results in a distinctive fusion of overlaying a star’s persona alongside their skill at portraying a role. Likely because Soderbergh is his own cinematographer and inspires trust and loyalty from his collaborators, the quick, fluid, nature of Soderbergh’s set allows for more intimate and spontaneous performances. This is certainly on display in Candelabra, which is marked by bravura acting from Douglas, Damon and many of the other players involved in the film.