Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

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I debated whether or not even to review HBO’s latest event biopic Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a film since 2010’s goth-ballet-thriller-mess Black Swan…and, to this day, I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

I will admit that I was transfixed by this peek into the gilded cage in which Liberace lived, loved, and controlled all those around him. Michael Douglas is a marvel. I forgot I was watching him, though I don’t know that I ever truly believed I was watching Liberace.

At times, I was transfixed the way one might be driving past a car accident on the highway.

As a kid, Liberace gave me the heebie jeebies. Not because of his mincing, sequined, over-baked stage persona (who cares!) but because he seemed so inauthentic and full of campy self-loathing. Well, the film nails that vibe, and offers a portrait (much like HBO’s recent Phil Spector) of a celebrity who created a carnival about himself to escape the reality of his own personal demons.

Most of the supporting players are great – Rob Lowe as a plastic-faced Faustian cosmetic surgeon, Scott Bakula as a sad-sack Liberace-groupie of some sort, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s oily manager/love life hit man, and even Matt Damon as Farrah-haired paramour Scott Thorson.

As the film careens to its sloppy final act, Damon struggles to find his footing in those jilted years that prompted Thorson to write the book upon which this movie is based; however, Damon does create a compelling, sad, and appropriately skeezy portrait of Thorson’s early years with “Lee” (Liberace’s nickname).

The weak link in the cast is Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Like most of Reynolds’ recent performances, she seems to be phoning it in from 60s-era Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with her cartoon-y Slav-esque accent and Mrs. Doubtfire/Jimmy Durante fake proboscis.

What bothered me about the film? That part is tricky. I may be over-thinking, but why make this film? If we needed a film about Liberace (and I’m still not sure we did), why base it on a dubious tell-all (now out-of-print) written by a drug-addled, oft-jailed ex-lover? Are the filmmakers giving us the inside view of a talented man (Liberace) who, due to the circumstances of his era/audience/success, was chronically incapable of living an authentic, open, loving life? Or are they inadvertently inciting a bit of a “gay panic” playing winky/wink/nudge/nudge “dress-up” in the sweaty, paranoid era when Studio 54, Mr. Roper, Reaganomics, and the AIDS crisis collided?

Not sure. Is this film worth seeing? I think so. But, as I am prone to do, I worry about its interpretation out-of-context.

And, yes, I had a similar worry about the interpretation of the satirically violent Hunger Games with its atonally giddy Harry Potter-esque marketing campaign. So maybe I am just a worrier. As Liberace espouses late in the film, “Too much of a good thing…is wonderful.”

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…

Easter weekend of lost souls: Hitchcock, Phil Spector, and The Girl

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As I have noted previously, holidays with my parents tend to be spent in a darkened movie theatre between marathon rounds of canasta, computer maintenance, and the finest dining small-town Indiana can muster.

This weekend was no exception…well, sort of an exception. The movies were present, but in a darkened living room, after an emergency late night trip to the local Wal-Mart to replace a malfunctioning VCR/DVD combo player. (And a futile argument with the salesman as to whether or not I needed something called an RF tuner. He said no. I said yes. Two subsequent trips later, I was right.)

So how did we spend this unusual holiday when Easter/Passover/April Fool’s converged (not to mention my dad’s birthday)? How else but with three films about two haunted auteurs and the women who loved/loathed/enabled them.

The usually redoubtable HBO Films stumbles a bit with their take on Phil Spector and his infamous murder trial. That is not to say that stars Al Pacino in the title role and Helen Mirren as his legal counsel  are bad. In fact, both, saddled as they are in the movie with a rather unfortunate series of wigs, are excellent.

The TV biopic is at its strongest, in fact, when just the two leads are onscreen with the looney tunes Spector/Pacino winning over Mirren’s character with his charming misunderstood/misanthropic pop artist routines. Both actors exude warmth, with Mirren offering a flinty empathy illuminating nicely the genius of the David Mamet-penned monologues Pacino brilliantly delivers.

What’s wrong with the movie? A script that stretches about 35 minutes of sparkling dialogue/interplay between the two stars into about 90 minutes of procedural dullness. However, Mirren and Pacino both make this one worth watching, shining sympathetic light into the dark mind of a man whose musical genius emanated from the very outsider-stance that finished him off.

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Speaking of intellectual misfits, our Friday-night double feature concluded with one of two 2012 cinematic takes on the life of Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren (again) as his wife Alma Reville. Again, this is not a great film but does benefit from a couple of remarkable performances by two accomplished thespians.

Hopkins should have abandoned the poor make-up job that makes him look more like Danny DeVito’s “Penguin” from Batman Returns than the Master of Suspense as, otherwise, his performance is exceptional with voice, walk, and spirit all spot-on.

But this is Mirren’s show as the long-suffering but equally talented wife, without whom Hitchcock’s many masterpieces might have been half-baked pot boilers and cheap thrillers. Alma endures countless indignities as Hitch obsesses over his famed adaptation of Psycho and fawns over and/or tortures his young starlets. The starlets in question are thinly-written takes on Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, performed adequately by Scarlett Johansson and Jessical Biel, respectively … who don’t look a darn thing like Leigh or Miles, respectfully.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday night, we completed our run through the lives of tortured artists with another HBO film The Girl, also about Hitchcock and his creepy preoccupation with icy blonde actresses. This movie was the best of the lot.

Toby Jones, who also found himself a few years back at the short end (no pun intended) of two competing biopics (Truman Capote), is incredible as Hitchcock. His Hitch is deeply haunted by a point of view and a physical appearance that puts him at odds perpetually with Hollywood glamor. And Sienna Miller achieves the impossible by making actress Tippi Hedren … well … interesting.

The Girl paints a compelling portrait of a man – Hitchcock – who attempts to make sense of his aversion to humanity and his self-loathing by playing puppet master over the beautiful people surrounding him. Also, this one does the best job of depicting the technical and artistic challenges of the creative process, offering great behind-the-scenes info on the making of both The Birds and Marnie.

All three films – Phil Spector, Hitchcock, and The Girl taken collectively – leave the viewer with revulsion for yet admiration of the creative genius. These men are “outsiders-forever-looking-in” whose contempt for humanity’s follies and foibles provide them immense gifts to enrich the lives and culture of that self-same humanity, yet leaving the artists themselves forever unfulfilled and broken.