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Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra

cannes 2013

Cannes: Damon, Soderbergh on the Bared Souls and Butts in Behind the Candelabra

Michael Douglas couldn’t speak. Seated on the dais at a Cannes press conference for Behind the Candelabra, he looked at his creative collaborators — including co-star Matt Damon, director Steven Soderbergh, and producer Jerry Weintraub — and suddenly went silent in the middle of his sentence. When he began speaking again, emotion choked the actor’s voice. “Sorry,” he said tentatively, tears in his eyes. “It was right after my cancer that this beautiful gift [of a movie] was handed to me. I’m eternally grateful.”

Behind the Candelabra is a funny picture: funny in some laugh-out-loud ways, but also funny as in unusual. For example, it’s Douglas’s first starring role since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, but it’s also Soderbergh’s last movie before his declared retirement. The film earned a gala competition slot at Cannes and will play in theaters all over Europe, yet American movie studios passed on the film, consigning it to a television berth on HBO, premiering this Sunday. And despite all the glitter and over-the-top camp comedy of its milieu — this is a biopic of the flamboyant pianist Liberace, after all — the film can boast several authentically emotional moments, which are all the more surprising since Soderbergh’s output is usually so cool and unsentimental.

The 68-year-old Douglas plays Liberace as a glitz-addicted kitsch superstar (“I personally support the entire Austrian rhinestone business,” he jokes at one point, and you believe him) who makes quite an impression on his new lover, the much younger Scott (Matt Damon). It isn’t long before Scott becomes accustomed to Liberace’s wealth and cruise-y sexuality, and before long, Liberace is literally remaking Scott in his image via plastic surgery (done by a riotously pinched and pulled Rob Lowe). Relationships often hit a patch where one partner tries to transform the other, but rarely does that come with chin and cheek implants.

Soderbergh said at the press conference that he was trying to pitch Candelabra for years to obstinate studio executives: “The sense from them was, 'We're not convinced that there's an audience for this film, except for people who are gay.'” But he doesn’t see HBO as a consolation prize. “Our attitude at the end of the day was, You know what? More people are going to see it,” he said. “Certainly, there's a lot of great TV being made in the States right now, and in terms of cultural real estate, I feel like TV is really taking control of a conversation that used to be sort of the exclusive domain of movies. I don't view this as good or bad, it's just what it is."

In fact, when it comes to the film’s unabashed gay sexuality, the move to a permissive premium cable channel may have only aided Soderbergh. "In terms of being in bed with Michael Douglas, I now have things in common with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close,” said Damon. “We can all go out now and trade stories." Those in the press who saw the film today were buzzing about Damon’s many nude moments, including one scene in which Scott and Liberace argue before bed, a domestic conflict briefly interrupted when frequent sunbather Scott undresses, revealing a distinctly European tan line. “I'm really proud of that scene,” laughed Damon. “My behind is very large in the scene, but it's out of focus, because the focus is thrown deep to Michael. We'll see it on the biggest screen ever tonight, which will be jarring.”

Damon says that he himself suggested the moment to Soderbergh after a tanning session gone wrong. “And Steven just looked at me for a long time, and he goes, 'Oh, I know where to put the camera,’” recalled Damon. “I did warn every guy on the crew. I said, 'Listen, this is not something you can unsee. You're all welcome to look, but you can't unring that bell. It's going to be seared into your memory if you choose to look!’"

Earlier in his career, Soderbergh mostly eschewed nudity in his films; once, while discussing the sexy but unrevealing love scene he directed in Out of Sight, Soderbergh explained, “When an actor takes off their clothes, the movie becomes a documentary.” Today, I asked the filmmaker whether his comparatively fleshy films of recent vintage — especially Magic Mike and Candelabra — have marked a change in attitude.

"No, I don't think so,” he said, after some consideration. “There's still that line, I think, where if you cross it, you do sort of take people out of the film. In this case, when Matt told me the story of the Brazilian spray tan, I just felt that the world really needed to see this, so I was looking for opportunities. And we found them! Give the people what they want, and they'll show up."

But will Soderbergh keep delivering what audiences want? While he’s often said that Candelabra would be his last film, it’s impossible not to notice how much fun the director has seemed to be having in his three most recent pictures. Asked today to reiterate his plans for retirement, Soderbergh’s denials sounded suddenly less Shermanesque.

“As far as this being my swan song, I don't know,” he said. “I'm absolutely taking a break. I don't know how extended it's going to be.” In any case, Soderbergh is happy with the period he’s put on a career that began with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a Sundance hit that also came to the Croisette 24 years ago. “I can't say that if this were the last movie I made, I would be unhappy,” he said, smiling. “I'm really, really proud of this film.”

Photo: HBO Films