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Who needs the movies now?

WHEN Steven Soderbergh announced that Behind the Candelabra, his outrageously enjoyable HBO movie about the tumultuous, destructive relationship between pianist Liberace and his toyboy lover Scott Thorson, would be his final film, he provoked mixed emotions.

It was sad to think that the 50-year-old director, who burst on the scene in 1989 with the indie hit Sex, Lies and Videotape and whose eclectic output since then – often brilliant, occasionally infuriating but rarely less than intriguing – marks him out as a true original, might be lost to movies for good.

At the same time, it was gratifying to see a major American filmmaker finally give two fingers to the increasingly infantilised Hollywood system. Soderbergh has for years been railing against the big studios for spending enormous amounts of money on blockbusters aimed primarily at fanboys who think the movies began with Star Wars.

The studios argue that the returns from these expensive extravaganzas help prop up production of more modest films with less obvious appeal; in fact, claims Soderbergh, the opposite is the case. The big, so-called tentpole movies are crushing genuine creativity and making it harder for smaller, riskier films to get made.

He was proved right when every studio in Tinseltown refused to finance Behind the Candelabra on the grounds that it was "too gay". It seems homophobic Hollywood likes its homosexuals to be of the strictly-no-kissing variety Tom Hanks played in the timid, preachy Philadelphia.

NEEDY

HBO happily stumped up Behind the Candelabra's budget of $23m – which wouldn't buy you a spare suit of armour for Iron Man. Hollywood's loss was the cable TO company's gain.

Behind the Candelabra is a wonderful film, one of the finest things Soderbergh has done; it's as dazzling as one of Liberace's stage costumes, but in a good way. Michael Douglas, who's both riotously funny and touchingly vulnerable as the needy, sexually greedy entertainer, delivers a performance that equals, and possibly even outstrips, his work in Wall Street, Falling Down and Wonder Boys.

He's matched scene for scene by Matt Damon as Thorson, who allowed Liberace's plastic surgeon (a hilarious turn by Rob Lowe) to sculpt his face into a grotesque mask of the pianist's own and eventually found himself dumped for a younger model.

Soderbergh's willingness to make Behind the Candelabra with HBO appeared to acknowledge what many people have realised for a long time: that the best writing and directing, as well as the juiciest acting roles, are now all to be found on American television, which was once cinema's poor, despised relation.

Douglas, who's still a huge movie star and hadn't worked in TO since his breakthrough role in The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s, seems to realise it too.

He'd wanted to play Liberace from the moment the project was conceived. His willingness to stay on board even after it became glaringly apparent that mainstream Hollywood wouldn't touch Behind the Candelabra speaks volumes.

Wrong

It's disappointing, then, that Soderbergh – who's revoked his retirement claim and now says he's simply taking an extended leave of absence – still felt it necessary to premiere Behind the Candelabra at Cannes, before it screened on HBO, and to release it to cinemas in Europe.

It's as if a small part of him still needs Hollywood's official validation – or perhaps just a tacit admission from the studio suits that they got it wrong when they refused to financially back his film.

Why? Hollywood, after all, has been getting things wrong for decades. Back in 1980, the Oscar voters, a group overwhelmingly made up of elderly white men who rarely venture into a cinema, shunned Martin Scorsese's brilliant Raging Bull for the Best Film Oscar and instead handed it to Robert Redford's worthy but dull Ordinary People, which was little more than an upmarket soap opera.

I'd rather Soderbergh were making films than not, in any medium.

But television is where the future lies. If and when he does decide to return to work, it would be good if he made his future there, too.


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