Steven Soderbergh has churned out box-office hits about male strippers ("Magic Mike"), a sassy environmentalist ("Erin Brockovich") and a modern-day Rat Pack ("Ocean's Eleven"). But when it came to selling a film about one of America's most iconic entertainers, most of Hollywood turned away.
"Behind the Candelabra," a film about Liberace's secret affair with a much younger man, premiered last week at the Cannes Film Festival and will play in theaters worldwide. But in the United States, the film is debuting on HBO, even though it stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
Soderbergh has said he went to the pay channel after every studio passed on the project.
"People keep saying that it's never been tougher to get good stuff made than it is today," said Tom Papa, who plays Liberace's manager in the film. "I mean, we've got Michael, Matt, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds and no one wants to make that? Who else do you need to put in there?"
Transformers and X-Men, that's who. Hollywood's disinterest in "Candelabra" seemingly has less to do with its gay themes than with the fact that it's not blockbuster material.
"It's no longer about making a little bit of money," Papa said. "It's about coming up with a billion-dollar idea."
The industry's lack of interest in smaller, more personal fare seems to be the reason Soderbergh has announced that he is stepping away from the movie world.
"In theory, I'm finished," he recently told the Associated Press. "I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I can optimize my process as a filmmaker, and I haven't seen a lot of effort expended on the part of the studios to optimize their process. And I don't understand it. The biggest stumbling block to this paradigm being revised is the cost of putting a mainstream movie out. It's truly the tail that's wagging the dog. It's influencing every decision at every level. I can't believe — unless there's some aspect of the relationship between the studios and the theater owners that I'm not aware of — that this is the only way it can be done."
In the meantime, Soderbergh is focusing on art and writing but says he's pondering some TV projects. If he sticks to his script, the movie world will have lost one of its most innovative directors, one who jump-started the indie-film scene with the 1989 feature "Sex, Lies and Videotape."
"Steven has said that if he tried to make that film today, it wouldn't happen," said Papa, who also appeared in Soderbergh's 2009 dark comedy "The Informant!" "He doesn't compromise. He doesn't do anything for anybody other than himself."
In this case, it's taking viewers deep into Liberace's glitzy world, from being driven onstage in Vegas in a chauffeured limo to having a houseboy who serves pigs in a blanket at crotch level. This from the same man who previously guided us through deep space ("Solaris"), the drug business ("Traffic"), revolutionary Cuba ("Che") and the world of performance artist Spalding Gray ("Gray's Anatomy"). Is there any director with more eclectic and unpredictable tastes?
The good news is that Soderbergh will continue sharing his creativity with us. Cable television, where there is far less interference than in the feature-film industry, would be the ideal place for him. Then there's the new territory being carved out by Netflix. Until then, Soderbergh is keeping busy in other ways.
"He's painting now," Papa said. "I keep asking him, 'How am I going to get into your next painting?' "