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At Cannes, Steven Soderbergh praises the golden age of television. (Lionel Cironneau/AP)
At Cannes, Steven Soderbergh praises the golden age of television. (Lionel Cironneau/AP)

For his final film, Steven Soderbergh returns to the beginning Add to ...

In 1989, 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh came to Cannes with his first film, about a man (James Spader) who liked to videotape women talking about their sex lives. Sex, Lies and Videotape won the Palme d’Or, launching not only his immensely productive and varied career (Traffic, Out of Sight, the Oceans movies), but also an entire American independent movie movement that flourished through the nineties.

On Tuesday, Soderbergh brought what he says may well be his final film, the HBO-produced Behind the Candelabra, about the life of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). The film, which premiers on HBO on Sunday night, is, ultimately, not that big a step from his first Cannes venture. When it came down to it, said Soderbergh at a press conference, both films were about “two people in a room talking.”

Or, sometimes, more than talking. The love scenes between Damon and Douglas are an obvious provocative hook (or, in the case of the Hollywood studios who passed on the final $5-million of the $23-million film, an impediment to financing a film they considered of interest only to a gay audience). The stars shrugged off the difficulty of the intimate scenes, with Douglas joking about consulting on favourite lip balms.

Damon added: “In terms of being in bed with Michael Douglas, I’m in good company with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close, Demi Moore. Now we can go out and share stories.”

Damon even asked Soderbergh if he could include a scene when he drops his robe and exposes his “Brazilian tan line” across his bare buttocks, though he said he warned the crew, with whom he has worked on seven Soderbergh movies now: “This is something you can’t unsee. You’re welcome to look, but be warned, you can’t unring that bell.”

There was also a moment when Douglas, 68, became briefly choked up, talking about how this project was the first since his 2010 treatment for throat cancer. Douglas began by describing how, 13 years ago, while on the set of Soderbergh’s movie, Traffic, the director started looking at him pensively, and asked: “What do you think of Liberace?”

“I thought,” said Douglas, “that he was messing with me. He had me a little paranoid for a moment. So I did a little impression and then forgot about it. Seven years later, Steven found an outlet through this book, written by Matt’s character, Scott Thorson.”

As he went on, Douglas suddenly lost his momentum and became choked up: “For me this has a… this is tough… because it was right after my cancer, this beautiful gift. And I’m eternally gratefully to Steven and Matt … and everybody, for waiting for me.”

After warm applause for Douglas, the conversation came back to Soderbergh, and the reason that Beyond the Candelabra is showing on television, not in theatres, where many say Douglas would have a strong shot at an Oscar nominationfor his performance.

For Soderbergh, the indie film wave he helped create has largely waned and, for a decade now, television has been getting better:

“In terms of cultural real estate, TV has really taken control of the conversation that used to be the reserve of movies. It’s sort of a second golden age of television which is great for the viewers. … If you like your stories to go narrow and deep, TV is exciting.”

While Soderbergh’s complaints about the movie industry and decision to retire are now familiar news, it was striking how quickly the other people on the panel agreed. Added Michael Douglas, himself a long-time successful producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The China Syndrome): “A lot of screenwriters are going into cable television because they can be writers as well as producers, which is more economically advantageous and also, more autonomous.”

Added screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County) who wrote Beyond the Candelabra: “To me as a writer, it’s more exciting. Television is expanding while movies, at least Hollywood studio movies, seem to be contracting. TV is where you can write your novel.”

And perhaps it’s fitting that a star who made a dazzling spectacle of himself in the first golden age of television, should be remembered in the same medium. Douglas himself remembers a luminous encounter with Liberace, when he was a boy and Liberace lived near his father, Kirk Douglas’s house:

“I was about 12 years old. Lee, as his friends called him, had a house nearby and I saw him at a crossroads and this car stopped – I think it was a Rolls-Royce convertible and it was a beautiful bright Palm Springs day, and between the gold around his neck and from his rings, the light was bouncing off him. He had this great smile and not a hair out of place … I talked to my father who knew him well. He was known as a wonderful host, and a great guy, and was, I guess, sort of the forefather of Elton John and Lady Gaga.”

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