(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at this month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off today. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Steven Soderbergh with “Behind the Candelabra.”)
The director: Steven Soderbergh (American, 50 years old). In the 24 years since he won the Palme d’Or for his very first feature, Soderbergh has balanced independent and Hollywood filmmaking with more success (and more daring) than just about any American director of his era: it’s hard to think of anyone else who would follow up a candyfloss “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel with a two-part, nitty-gritty biopic of Che Guevara. Born and raised in the South, Soderbergh began studying animation and making 16mm shorts while still a teenager. After graduating high school, he headed straight to Hollywood, where he eventually found work as a freelance editor; in 1985, he directed a concert video for rock band Yes, which earned him a Grammy nomination and higher profile on which to build his debut feature “sex, lies and videotape” — which, in addition to the Palme, earned Soderbergh his first Oscar nod.
He continued through the 1990s with a series of smallish, idiosyncratic features, none of which gained him much traction until his 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation “Out of Sight” was feted by critics and proved his dexterity with sexy genre material. 2000 proved his annus mirabilis, with mainstream smash “Erin Brockovich” and narcotics thriller “Traffic” both earning him Oscar nominations, and the latter the win, for Best Director. Since then, he’s been prolifically plugging away on a “one for them, one for me” basis, alternating between films as small as “Bubble” and ones as slick as the Danny Ocean franchise. He’s already hit our screens once this year (and competed at the Berlinale) with his sly Hitchcockian thriller “Side Effects” — he claims it’s his final theatrical feature, but who believes him?
The talent: Megastars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon both have a history with Soderbergh. Douglas was an integrated member of the “Traffic” and “Haywire” ensembles; Damon had a starring role in “The Informant!,” turned up in “Contagion” and is a regular member of the “Ocean’s” gang. The film also has colorful rules for such big names as Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd (where’s he been?) and an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds; former TV stars Scott Bakula (“Quantum Leap”) and Paul Reiser (“Mad About You”), as well as Broadway hunk Cheyenne Jackson, are also in the mix.
The film marks Soderbergh’s first collaboration with name screenwriter (and sometime director) Richard LaGravenese: an Oscar nominee at the start of his career for “The Fisher King,” his subsequent credits include “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Beloved” and this year’s undeserved teen flop “Beautiful Creatures.” As usual, cinematographer “Peter Andrews” and editor “Mary Ann Bernard” are Soderbergh pseudonyms. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who obviously has a lot to work with here, is a two-time Guild nominee whose more distinctively-dressed previous credits range from “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” to “Showgirls.”
The pitch: Soderbergh’s first post-“retirement” release is also his first made-for-television film — though this HBO production is being released theatrically outside the US. Soderbergh says he went the small-screen route because LaGravenese’s script was “too gay” for the Hollywood studios, and curbing the gayness certainly isn’t an option when the subject of your movie is piano virtuoso and Vegas legend Liberace, a figure for whom the term “flamboyant” isn’t quite sufficient. The world’s highest-paid entertainer for a good portion of his 40-year career, Liberace vehemently denied his homosexuality to the media all the way up to his AIDS-related death in 1987, though he was effectively hiding in plain sight, maintaining a string of expensively kept (and silenced) live-in lovers. “Behind the Candelabra” is adapted from the memoir of Scott Thorson, who was just a teenager when he moved in with the fiftysomething icon; they enjoyed a tumultuous five-year relationship before Thorson sued Liberace for palimony. Douglas plays Liberace, Damon plays Thorson; while the ensemble is substantial, this is essentially a two-headed relationship drama.
The pedigree: This is Soderbergh’s fourth turn in Competition at Cannes: since winning the Palme with “sex, lies and videotape” in 1989, he has also competed with Depression-era coming-of-age “King of the Hill” (my personal favorite among his films, for whatever that’s worth) in 1993, and the aforementioned “Che,” which won Best Actor for Benicio Del Toro, in 2008. Soderbergh was initially reluctant to premiere “Behind the Candelabra” in Competition, but was persuaded to do so by festival director Thierry Fremaux — an indication of the esteem in which he’s held at the festival. And indeed everywhere else: the career appreciations prompted by his threatened retirement and the strength of recent, audience-friendly films like “Magic Mike” and “Side Effects” have ensured his reputation is in pretty fine fettle.
The buzz: I’ve already seen “Behind the Candelabra,” and am still under embargo, so it’d be pretty disingenuous for me to assess “buzz” for it. But the fascination of Michael Douglas playing a camp icon and the believe-it-or-not extremes of Thorson’s story would make it one of the Competition’s most keenly awaited entries even if weren’t supposedly the last thing we’ll ever see from Soderbergh at a film festival. Meanwhile, it’s not the first HBO movie to premiere in Competition at Cannes — “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” played in 2004 — but the first from an A-list director. As production models shift within the industry, it could prove something of a trailblazer.
The odds: Even if it’s a theatrical feature for Cannes purposes, will jury president Steven Spielberg want to throw his weight behind a TV movie? That’s the question, as in every other respect, the narrative for a win here is quite strong: it’d be sweet to see Soderbergh’s career (as he’s defined it to us, anyway) bookended with a pair of Palmes. If the top prize (for which Jigsaw Lounge offers 14-1 odds) is a bit of a stretch, though, a sentimental Best Director or Prix du Jury win is quite conceivable. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas could be right in the thick of the Best Actor discussion.
The premiere date: Tuesday, May 21.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up the lone Italian entry in this year’s Competition lineup: Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty.”
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