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Behind the Candelabra, the biopic of flamboyant entertainer Liberace that may be director Steven Soderbergh's swansong, turned the spotlight on homosexuality on Tuesday in a landmark year for gay rights.
The biggest film screening at the 12-day festival's halfway point, Soderbergh's movie has generated a huge buzz, for top-line heterosexual actors are cast in the roles of gays. Michael Douglas turns in an eye-catching performance as the ageing Las Vegas pianist, while Matt Damon plays his handsome teenage lover, Scott Thorson.
Outrageously flashy but also a virtuoso pianist in his own right, Liberace died of AIDS in 1987 at 67 after four decades in the spotlight.
Visually, the movie is a blaze of cheesy style, from mink coats and Rolls-Royces to rhinestone jackets and the trademark candelabra that Liberace placed on his piano. Beneath the flash, though, the film explores themes of love and trust, tinged by Liberace's narcissism and obsession with youth and by Thorson's vulnerability as a child raised by foster parents. In one graphic scene, Liberace pushes Thorson to have plastic surgery so that he can look like the star did in his youth. As the once-tender relationship between Liberace and Thorson fractures, it touches on the pressures on gay relationships at a time when homosexuals had to keep their identity carefully secret.
Throughout his life, Liberace outwardly declared he was a heterosexual, encouraged gossip that he was having female relationships and in the 1950s sued a British paper that insinuated otherwise. He persisted with the facade right into the 1980s, when Thorson, by now addled by drugs and ditched by Liberace, filed a "palimony" lawsuit.
Behind the Candelabra is released in a historic year for gay rights. Fourteen countries, as well as 12 US states, have now legalised same-sex marriage. "Fifty years ago, we didn't even have the Civil Rights Act in the United States -- now of course it's part of our DNA," Soderbergh told a post-screening press conference.
"So when this issue comes up, of equal rights for gays, I always think, I'm hoping, 50 years from now, we're going to be looking back on this and wonder why this was even a debate, and what took so long," he said. "We're getting there, it's all I think moving in the right direction. But to be honest... in making the film, the socio-political aspect wasn't really on my mind, I was focused on this relationship and trying to make this relationship as believable and realistic as we could."
The film's gay theme prompted mainstream Hollywood to shy away from financing the picture, Soderbergh has said elsewhere. As a result, he turned to the US cable TV giant HBO. Even if the movie turns out to be a hit, it will have no chance of an Oscar by screening first on television.
Clearly moved, Douglas paid tribute to Soderbergh, Damon and producer Jerry Weintraub for giving him a "beautiful gift" after his fight with throat cancer. Both he and Damon said they had had no qualms about approaching scenes of male contact, which involved kissing and cuddling and, Damon said laughingly, an artfully fuzzy shot of his backside. "With the security of knowing each other, of having worked with Steven before, knowing Matt, you don't have to go through that formal dance of introductions," said Douglas, who starred in Soderbergh's "Traffic". The approach, he said wryly, was: "'We've both read the script, let's get it on, just what flavour lip balm would you like me to use?'"
Damon said he and Douglas had not hesitated at all about breaking with their image as hetero hunks -- Damon featured in the Bourne movies, and Douglas starred in "Basic Instinct" and "Fatal Attraction."
"In terms of being in bed with Michael Douglas, I now have things in common with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close," Damon quipped. "We can all now go out and trade stories."
One of actors' most popular directors, with a string of critical successes under his belt, Soderbergh leapt to prominence in 1989 where he won Cannes' Palme d'Or for "Sex, Lies and Videotape."
He also directed "Erin Brockovich" and the three "Ocean's" films.
Soderbergh refused to quell speculation that was retiring, saying, "I'm absolutely taking a break, I don't know how extended it's going to be... it's been a good run."