Director Steven Soderbergh had no luck finding a commercial distributor for Behind the Candelabra, his movie about the turbulent relationship between flamboyant showman Liberace and his erstwhile lover Scott Thorson, but the lavish production certainly found a cushy home at HBO, where the film pulled some of the highest ratings in the premium channel’s recent history and snagged a staggering 15 Primetime Emmy nominations.
This Tuesday, HBO Home Entertainment releases Candelabra in both DVD and Blu-ray single disc formats in a pristine transfer that allows fans to revisit the sumptuous design detail as well as the exceptional Emmy-nominated performances by co-leads Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as, respectively, Liberace and Thorson. Despite the sensitive nature of the material, which includes a couple of fairly graphic same-sex love scenes, both actors really throw themselves into their roles with a commitment that is both fearless and ego-free.
“You forget about us (as actors) pretty quickly,” Douglas comments in The Making of Behind the Candelabra, a 14-minute behind-the-scenes extra included with the set. “And you pretty quickly also forget it’s two guys. You’re just watching (a film) about a relationship.” The short documentary also includes several pieces of production trivia, such as the fact that the exterior of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s residence in Los Angeles stood in for Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion.
The large supporting cast also includes fellow Emmy nominee Scott Bakula, along with Rob Lowe, Cheyenne Jackson, Dan Aykroyd and a virtually unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds in a memorable cameo as Liberace’s mother. Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese also scored Emmy nods, and the film itself is up for the outstanding movie or miniseries trophy.
If Behind the Candelabra is largely about capturing the glitzy, over-the-top extravagance of Liberace’s world, Parade’s End, another recent HBO Home Entertainment release on two discs, charts the repressed but explosive World War I triangle encompassing an English aristocrat and the two women who love him. Superstar-in-the-making Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) stars as Christopher Tietjens, a morally upright chap who is seduced into marrying pregnant socialite Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) even though there’s a very good chance the baby isn’t his. Bored and restless, Sylvia is aghast that her husband is too decent to be angry about her infidelity, and she treats Christopher pretty abominably over the course of the five-part miniseries.
Both Hall and Cumberbatch, who earned an Emmy nomination for his performance, are so good and deliver such multifaceted performances that they keep you switching allegiances as you watch this catastrophic couple clash again and again. Newcomer Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) also stars as Valentine Wannop, a suffragette who loves Christopher but must endure a chaste relationship with him, since he’s too nice a guy to divorce his wife. The strong cast also includes former Oscar nominees Janet McTeer and Miranda Richardson.
The only extra in the set is, somewhat oddly, a half-hour radio interview between screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), who earned an Emmy nod for his work, and film critic Elvis Mitchell. Not surprisingly, Stoppard has a lot of fascinating stuff to say about adapting the four 1920s-era novels by Ford Madox Ford that form the basis of the miniseries, but Mitchell more than holds his own in this cerebral chatfest, demonstrating a capacious grasp of both Ford’s novels and Stoppard’s own plays. In fact, at one point, Stoppard stops to tell Mitchell, “I haven’t been interviewed by a man so well briefed for about 40 years.” If you’re up for a challenging but very rewarding drama, I highly recommend this set.
On its surface, HBO’s new three-night miniseries adaptation of Parade’s End, beginning tonight and based on a series of novels by Ford Madox Ford, might appear to be a perfect tonic for Downton Abbey addicts going through withdrawal now that their PBS favo(u)rite has ended another season.
Despite similarities in their Edwardian period settings, however, HBO’s ambitious and very adult drama is a good deal more complex and psychologically challenging than PBS’s glossy, grandly acted soap opera. Where Julian Fellowes dishes out readily accessible and often campy melodrama on Downton, HBO’s Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) charts the explosive course of a doomed marriage set against the backdrop of wartime and social upheaval in England.
Benedict Cumberbatch, a shooting star at the moment thanks to his work in Sherlock and his highly anticipated villainous turn in the upcoming Star Trek feature film, stars as Christopher Tietjens, a well-born conservative Englishman who meets and is seduced by the ravishing and headstrong Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) during a train journey. Later, when she reveals that she is pregnant – possibly by him, but maybe not – Christopher manfully does the right thing and marries her.
Yet while opposites may attract, Christopher and Sylvia’s union is explosive. She’s a sensual, decidedly modern woman with a voracious appetite for excitement, while he’s a cerebral genius who spends his idle time scribbling corrections in the margin of his Encyclopedia Brittannica. It’s only a matter of time before she decamps for an impetuous and scandalous fling in France with a besotted male admirer (Tom Mison) before returning to the shocked and humiliated Christopher, who dutifully takes her back.
Yet Christopher’s forbearance only drives Sylvia further around the bend. A devout Catholic, she resolves never again to be sexually unfaithful even as she continues to flirt with men at every turn, hoping against hope to rouse Christopher into an emotional confrontation that might let them finally lance the poison that is killing their marriage. Instead, Christopher embarks on a chaste relationship with Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette whose selfless idealism is balm for Christopher’s wounds.
As love triangles go, this one is well short of equilateral in Stoppard’s hands. Clemens’ Valentine is endearing, but she’s somewhat stuck in standard ingénue mode. Fans who know Cumberbatch primarily from his role as the borderline-autistic sleuth in Sherlock will be deeply moved by his tender, vulnerable work in the fiendishly difficult role of Christopher. Stoic decency is never easy to make compelling, yet Cumberbatch lets us feel Christopher’s pain all too keenly.
Make no mistake, though, this miniseries belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose Sylvia emerges as the real life force driving Parade’s End. The odds are good that you’re going to spend a good part of the miniseries wanting to strangle this character, but the confident, mesmerizing Hall peels away Sylvia’s haughty exterior to reveal the chastened wife underneath. “You forgave without mercy!” she hurls at Christopher during one angry confrontation, and you can feel the aching loneliness of this infuriating but all too human woman.
The formidable cast also includes Roger Allam, offering invaluable comic relief as Cristopher’s military superior, former Oscar nominees Janet McTeer and Miranda Richardson as the mothers of Sylvia and Valentine respectively, and Rupert Everett as Christopher’s brother. Parade’s End isn’t easy TV – Stoppard’s dense dialogue demands that you pay close attention to every scene – yet ultimately delivers as much emotional payoff as spending time with the Crawleys of Downton Abbey.