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Behind The Candelabra: Why Casting Matt Damon Was Both Great And Problematic

Behind The Candelabra Steven Soderbergh€™s Behind the Candelabra had its HBO premiere on Sunday and however one may feel about the film it€™s impossible to ignore the two superstar performances at its center. Since the movie€™s focus is entirely on the extremely one-sided five-year relationship between the isolated (and isolating) legendary pianist Liberace and a much younger (and much less powerful) man, Scott Thorson, the job of conveying compelling drama falls squarely on the shoulders of its leads, and neither one of them disappoints. Only one of the performances though, proves problematic. Michael Douglas arguably has the tougher role since he€™s playing one of the most iconic performers who ever lived, and one whose voice and mannerisms can easily reduce a lesser actor to impersonation at best and caricature at worst. Douglas avoids doing either, and instead presents us with a Liberace whose penchant for garish excess in all its forms is never distancing, but only seems to make him more human. More impressively Douglas somehow avoids making Liberace seem like an outright villain despite the alleged lies and manipulations the screenplay (drawn from Thorson€™s memoir) attributes to him. In the end, Douglas proves to be an inspired choice all around. Casting Matt Damon, however, is a flawed idea despite all of the impressive financial and artistic advantages that come with him. Brokeback Mountain notwithstanding, trying to get financial backing for a Hollywood movie about two gay men that€™s all about actually being in a homosexual relationship (as opposed to longing for one another over the years) is something that not only seems like an impossible task but apparently is, since this film only exists thanks to HBO swooping in to finance the project after Hollywood studios, according to Soderbergh, turned it down because it was €œtoo gay€. This, despite having bankable A-list stars like Douglas and Damon attached. It goes without saying that without Damon on board the movie€™s chances of being made would€™ve been greatly diminished. Behind the Candelabra 2 Damon€™s strengths aren€™t just the money and viewership that comes with name recognition however. The role itself requires the kind of acting chops Damon€™s been displaying for decades now in films from The Talented Mr. Ripley to The Departed. Since the story is told through Thorson€™s eyes and Liberace pretty much always gets his way it€™s Damon who€™s faced w/ the challenge of reacting to Douglas€™ showy superficiality but far more restrained emotional range. The lion€™s share of the story€™s emotional arcs is Thorson€™s and Damon more than lives up to the challenge. The crucial problem with casting Damon however, is something that can€™t be avoided: his age. It actually changes the tone of their relationship and the audience€™s perception of it,. It may come as a surprise to anyone who€™s only seen the film and read nothing about the real story, but one of the facts Soderbergh and the script continually steer away from was that Thorson became romantically involved with Liberace when he was only 18 years old. Although there€™s a clearly significant real-life age difference between the two leads, Damon, despite his feathered Farrah Fawcett-style hair-do, never looks younger nor seems younger than 20-something. In fact, if not for Damon€™s performance (which initially always seems a little incongruous with the 40-something actor we€™re seeing on the screen), the movie itself does little to help us think of Damon as 18 since the first images we see of Scott are getting picked up at a (possibly gay) bar and then apparently holding down some kind of animal-trainer job on a movie set. While these bits of information may be factual they certainly don€™t give the impression we€™re watching an 18-year old. Until Thorson begins to develop a more cynical hide as a result of the years of alleged exploitation Liberace€™s shown him, the character comes across as implausibly guileless and biddable. It€™s a little hard to imagine a man of Damon€™s age, no matter how young his character€™s supposed to be, being so in awe of Liberace that his reaction to the request that he undergo plastic surgery in order to look more like the superstar pianist is one of such even-tempered amenability. However, had an actor closer to Thorson€™s real age at the time been cast, the character€™s lost-boy level of compliance would be far more believable. Behind the Candelabra 3 One also has to wonder what the audience€™s reaction would€™ve been if a more baby-faced actor who could credibly pull off 18 had been cast. It€™s fair to say that, rightly or wrongly, the occasionally graphic sex scenes would€™ve likely made viewers far more uncomfortable than they were watching the 40-something Damon get it on with the 60-something Douglas, but it might have also prompted many viewers to consider why watching an 18-year old in the arms of a man who would€™ve been in his very early 40€™s at the time might seem so unsettling and even predatory when we accept as routine other incredibly successful and powerful older males like Hugh Hefner or any stereotypical Hollywood producer entering into long-term relationships with females who might be old enough to vote, but not old enough to buy their own drinks. For a film in which the most interesting parts nudge the viewer to think about the parallels between gay and straight couples as well as whether or not they themselves have any somewhat hypocritical feelings and expectations regarding gay relationships, not having an actor who can convincingly play 18 seems like a lost opportunity. You can read our original Cannes review of Behind The Candelabra by clicking "next" below...
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