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The 86th Annual Academy Awards

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are upon us.

It continues to amaze me how few people understand that this isn’t some sort of national poll of either critics or audiences; it’s an industry event. And yet the public continues to tune in, year after year, to what is essentially a three hour plus commercial for the American film industry, which is all well and good, but one must remember that it marginalizes so many excellent films from around the world, as well as in the United States, into an “all or nothing sweepstakes” in which there can be only one winner in each category. That said, I blogged a few days ago on my initial thoughts on “who would win what”; now that the nominations are actually out, here are some more thoughts on the subject.

Directing, as I suggested in my last post, will go to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, though Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave is a strong contender, and in my opinion should get the nod; Best Actor to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but Bruce Dern is a strong favorite for Nebraska, now that Robert Redford is out of the running; Best Actress to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, which seems to me pretty much a lock; 12 Years A Slave for Best Picture, again pretty much a lock; Best Supporting Actor to Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, yet again pretty much a lock; and Best Animated Feature to Frozen, one more time, a lock. So that’s all recap of the earlier post.

So now, some new predictions, and here I’m venturing into much riskier territory. These thoughts should be taken with a huge grain of salt, and will be modified by future events that are, at this moment, too far away on the horizon to see; Best Supporting Actress is a toss up between Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle, Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave and June Squibb, for Nebraska, and Ms. Squibb might surprise everyone by taking this one home. Best Original Screenplay is again a long shot, but Bob Nelson’s nomination for Nebraska assures him of a decent shot. However, the other nominees are also very strong, so it’s really too close to call, and the same thing goes for Best Adapted Screenplay.

However, I’ll go out on a limb again and predict Thomas Vinterberg’s superb film The Hunt for Best Foreign Language Film, though this category continues to rankle. There are simply so many superb “foreign” films out there that to pick simply one film to represent the entire world is really a suspect enterprise, but in any event, that’s my pick in this least egalitarian of all Oscar categories. Best Documentary, the nearly unbearable The Act of Killing. Best Cinemtography, Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, simply because the film is such a visual tour-de-force; and Best Visual Effects, Gravity again, for obvious reasons.

That’s all for the moment; all of this, of course, is subject to change without notice.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

Ingmar Bergman for Bris Soap — 1951 Commercials

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Just like everyone else, Ingmar Bergman had to make a living in his early years.

As Martin Schneider notes on the Dangerous Minds website, “in 1951 the Swedish film industry went on strike to protest high taxes in the entertainment sector, and Ingmar Bergman, who at 33 had already directed a handful of movies and had also overseen the Gothenburg city theater for three years, signed on to do a series of commercials for Bris soap, in part to support his already teeming brood (two ex-wives and five children, with a sixth on the way). The commercials are playful, fascinating, and utterly Bergmanesque—in the best possible way.

What I don’t mean by ‘Bergmanesque’ is that they’re brooding or depressing or austere—as Bergman’s popular image would dictate. No, they are loose and original and supremely confident in the form of cinema. Bergman has had the misfortune to be identified with a couple of not overly representative movies—Persona (1966) and above all, The Seventh Seal (1957)—and his true nature as a restless and protean prober of human nature somehow got a little lost in the mix.

Bergman was nothing if not a relentlessly theatrical director, and few were more confident in exploring the limits of narrative in the medium. The parodies don’t quite suffice to encapsulate the director of the masterpieces Fanny and Alexander or Scenes from a Marriage. There are eight of the Bris commercials, they are all black-and-white, and the visual quality leaves something to be desired by the standards of 2013, but to Bergman’s credit, they are all wildly different and memorable and convey some succinct point about the nature of cinema as well as delivering the promised virtues of the soap.”

You can read more, and see the commercials, by clicking here.

Kevin Spacey on The Future of Televison

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Kevin Spacey has a few words of wisdom on the future of broadcast television and convergence with the web.

Spacey, who gave the keynote James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival on August 23rd, as reported in The Guardian — one of my favorite newspapers — told the audience that “clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House Of Cards at once – has proved one thing: the audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House Of Cards – then we should let them binge. [This] demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn – give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant. For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game Of Thrones on their computer. It’s all content. It’s all story.”

You can view video excerpts from the lecture here — about five minutes, condensed — and Spacey makes some very good points.

‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I have a review of Gabriele Pedullà’s book In Broad Daylight in the new issue of Film International.

As I write, “This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

‘The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.’

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for ‘television’s growing cultural prestige,’ I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the ‘old guard,’ Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that ‘on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,’ and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that ‘you can discover a film only at the movie theater.’

To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, ‘I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.’ Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. ‘You see’ Baker said, ‘on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.’ That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here, or on the image above.

Andy’s Gang, or Saturday Morning of the Living Dead

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I have a new article in Film International on the utterly bizarre 1950s children’s television show Andy’s Gang.

As I write, in part, “let us now consider Andy’s Gang, a horrific children’s television show from the 1950s. For those who live outside the United States, and didn’t grow up during the Cold War, this series may be absolutely unknown, and if this is the case, you can be thankful. For Andy’s Gang is the most twisted, most willfully odd and perverse television show imaginable, no matter what age group it’s aimed at. As one viewer put it, ‘the show reminds me of something David Lynch would come up with,’ but actually, that’s selling the show short. This one is truly off the charts, existing in a hermetically sealed land all its own, a phantom zone of non-performance and non-participation which is staggering in its dimensions and implications.

That’s quite a claim, but if I had to compare Andy’s Gang to anything else that comes under the heading of a moving image construct, I’d be almost instantly reaching for the horror films Castle of the Living Dead (1964), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), or Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973, a.k.a. The Mansion of Madness). For here is a television show, ostensibly aimed at children, in which the host never met – not even once – any of the members of his supposed audience, or was even in the same room with them, or even the same year – and which is comprised of such serial repetition of actual footage, as well as ceaselessly repeating its own internal structure, that it almost defies description. Indeed, as I’ll show later, there are virtually web support groups for aging baby boomers who seem to have been traumatized by the show as children, more than 53 years after the final episode of the series aired.

Saturday morning television in the United States in the 1950s belonged exclusively to children; this was a holdover from the tradition of Saturday morning shows in movie theaters in the 1920s through the early 1950s, when boys and girls would rush down to the local theater to see a double bill of two genre films, usually a western and/or a science-fiction or horror film, plus some cartoons, a chapter of a serial or ‘cliffhanger,’ some trailers, travelogues, shorts, and other assorted screen fare. When television took hold in the mid 1950s, it spelled the death of these morning screenings – serials, for example, ceased production entirely in 1956 as a direct result of competition from television – and television did its best to slavishly copy the model the movie theaters had followed so successfully.

So, on Saturday morning network television, you could forget about anything aimed at an adult audience; instead, one got a nonstop diet of such series as Kukla, Fran And Ollie, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon, Lassie, Annie Oakley, Ding Dong School, The Paul Winchell Show, The Roy Rogers Show, Captain Z-RO, The Rootie Kazootie Club, Winky Dink And You, Super Circus, The Cisco Kid, Sky King, Captain Midnight, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Pinky Lee Show, Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and many more.

Each of these shows had their own peculiarities; Howdy Doody was a live puppet show, with a real live ‘Peanut Gallery’ where kids would scream and holler as the show progressed – in short, genuine audience interaction; Flash Gordon, starring Steve Holland, was filmed in West Berlin in converted beer halls on a miniscule budget; Winky Dink and You encouraged kids to actually draw on the picture tubes of their television sets with crayons to trace this week’s mystery clue – one was supposed to place a special “magic screen,” actually thin plastic film, over the screen before marking it up, but many kids, enthralled by the suspense, simply forgot this part of the process – and so on.

But Andy’s Gang was a breed apart. One thing above all set it apart from its competitors; all of the shows listed above were fiction, and presented themselves as fiction, and the audience – except perhaps for the very young viewers – recognized this. But Andy’s Gang was fiction masquerading as reality. None of it was real; the whole series was a fictive construct. But it didn’t start out that way; it took the death of the original host, and a canny television producer/director possessed of a peculiar vision to make this particular Twilight Zone of fantasy/reality.”

You can read rest of the article by clicking here, or on the image above; an amazing cultural Cold War artifact.

Breaking Bad Begins Final Lap

Monday, August 12th, 2013

“If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”

Never a fan of Breaking Bad, while at the same not a detractor — just disinterested — I accidentally fell into the first of the final eight episodes on AMC last night. While I don’t care about any of the characters, or their fictitious plights, and though the whole episode was laden with cliché after cliché, such as the montage sequence with Tommy James and The Shondell’s Crystal Blue Persuasion playing over a series of images of drug dealing – yawn – and Jesse’s pitching the ill-gotten gains of their criminal enterprise out the window struck me as as similarly obvious – and while for most of the episode I could actually predict what the next line of dialogue would be with almost unerring accuracy (which isn’t that hard), this last scene, easily the best part of the episode, shows two excellent actors at the top of their game, with lead actor Bryan Cranston also directing the episode.

AMC obviously thinks so, too, or otherwise they wouldn’t have singled it out as a special feature on their website. There are seven more episodes to go; I don’t feel I have missed anything by skipping the previous five (is it five?) seasons, and have no urge to view them now, but I feel I can now watch the conclusion of Breaking Bad with a modicum of interest – while having absolutely no interest in the series that hopes to replace it, Low Winter Sun – or is that Low Winter Ratings. But this scene really works; check it out by clicking on the image above; there’s an advertisement before it, but of course, I can’t help that. And of course, that last line – quoted right under the frame grab – is a killer, and Cranston delivers it with absolute perfection.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Betty White

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, to read Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new essay “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television” in the latest issue of Film International.

As Foster notes, “Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.

White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.

But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband ‘Ricky.’

Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from The Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.

After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This grueling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.

Betty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and [her other pioneering television series, discussed at length in the Foster's article] Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels, because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.”

This is fascinating, deeply incisive work, with excellent research and detail. Read all about it here!

Bomb Girls Cancelled

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Bomb Girls profiled the stories of four women working in a Canadian munitions factory during World War II, beginning in 1941.

Bomb Girls was an ambitious Canadian television series shot on a break neck schedule and minimal budget in Toronto with a converted furniture factory in Etobicoke standing for the fictitious Victory Munitions Factory, which dealt realistically and sympathetically with the vicissitudes of life in wartime Canada, as women struggled to contribute to the war effort, and also to gain equal rights, as well as equal pay for their efforts. The series ran for two seasons.

As the series’ production website notes, “Bomb Girls tells the remarkable stories of the women who risked their lives in a munitions factory building bombs for the Allied forces fighting on the European front. The series delves into the lives of these exceptional women from all walks of life – peers, friends and rivals – who find themselves thrust into new worlds and changed profoundly as they are liberated from their home and social restrictions.”

Season 1 was filmed from September 12 to November 16, 2011, a very tight production schedule from any point of view; Season 2 was shot with equal speed and efficiency. With standout performances from Meg Tilly, Jodi Balfour, Charlotte Hegele, Ali Liebert, Anastasia Phillips, Antonio Cupo, Sebastian Pigott, Peter Outerbridge and others, the show was a refreshing change from the endless series of cop shows, detective procedurals, dreary reality series and serial killer dramas — the same thing year after year.

Bomb Girls was something fresh and original, and you could see that everyone in the series was working as hard as they could to get the most out of every production dollar. In addition, several excellent directors were attached to series, including Anne Wheeler, whose film Bye Bye Blues (1989) was an equally interesting and compelling World War II drama told from a feminist perspective.

However, despite critical acclaim and a growing fan base on April 22, 2013 Global TV and Shaw Media announced that Bomb Girls would not return for a third season. They did however suggest that a two hour TV movie serving as a series finale could air sometime in early 2014. Disappointed viewers have launched a campaign via savebombgirls.com in an effort to get this decision reversed.

As Kate Taylor wrote in The Globe and Mail, “when it launched as a six-part miniseries on Global in January, 2012, Bomb Girls got mixed reviews, but it quickly caught the attention of viewers and critics for its content. Depicting the lives of female munitions workers played by Meg Tilly and a group of younger actors, it has covered such issues as sexual harassment, infidelity, abortion and lesbianism.

This year, Bomb Girls won the best-drama category at the Gracie Awards, the prizes for women’s television in the U.S., where the show runs on the digital cable channel Reelz. It also airs on more than 40 countries in Latin America and Europe. At home, industry insiders gave points to Global, a network with a feeble track record of producing successful Canadian content, for illuminating an unusual chapter in Canadian history.

In part, the show owes its success to the way it fits into two increasingly popular genres: the period drama, represented by Mad Men and Downton Abbey; and female-centric shows such as Girls. Its social-media presence reveals a strong following among young women charmed and intrigued by the story of how their grandmothers fought to get jobs and respect. Initial ratings in Canada were very strong for a Canadian series: The first episodes drew well over a million viewers to Global.

The second season, which concludes Monday, also started well: 1.1 million watched the premiere. Bomb Girls’ producers add that the show reached another 200,000 to 300,000 viewers who recorded it to watch later. Ratings remained in the 800,000-to-900,000 range, they said, until the show got bumped off the schedule in February. ‘We lost 25 per cent of our audience between February and March,’ says executive producer Michael Prupas. Even in the 600,000-to-700,000, range, the show would be competitive with many dramas in CBC’s predominantly Canadian lineup.

Getting the right spot on a crowded schedule is a tricky proposition for any show in any market, but Canadian series are at a significant disadvantage. The reason: Canadian broadcasters maximize ad revenues by accommodating popular U.S. programming first. (Under Canadian regulations, a broadcaster can require the cable and satellite operators to drop Canadian ads into a competing U.S. signal when the broadcaster airs a show at exactly the same time as the U.S. network.)

Simulcasting means that commercial Canadian TV schedules are largely determined in Los Angeles, and Bomb Girls was the unusual Canadian show that won a weeknight, wintertime spot. Global airs its other prime-time Canadian drama, the cop show Rookie Blue, in the summer, when U.S. dramas are on hiatus.

Ironically, when Bomb Girls returned to a new Monday-night spot in late March it was up against not only the U.S. shows The Following and Two Broke Girls but also the CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. The competition between two rather similar Canadian shows might not have been the wisest use of tax dollars: It is not only the CBC that uses public money to make Canadian TV. Typical of Canadian dramas, Bomb Girls depends on the Canadian Media Fund for 25 per cent of its budget, while another 30 per cent is covered by government tax credits.

Seeing how successful Murdoch has been since it moved from CITY-TV to the CBC in January, some observers have speculated that the public broadcaster could rescue Bomb Girls. They have received, however, scant encouragement. ‘Our schedule for next season is set and … there’s no room to pick anything else up,’ says Kirstine Stewart, head of English-language services at the CBC. ‘Fans of Bomb Girls should talk to Global.’

But Global says it backed Bomb Girls to the hilt, and had always intended to program it in six-week arcs, like a miniseries. ‘We put massive support behind the show,’ says Barb Williams, senior vice-president for content at Shaw Media. ‘When it returned from hiatus, Bomb Girls was scheduled between heavy hitters like Bones and Hawaii Five-O and we put more marketing and publicity support behind it than any other Global show – in the hopes that the audience would grow over these successive story arcs.’

The broadcaster is now talking to the producers about creating a two-hour special next winter to wrap up the storylines. The producers want to proceed with that project – which Global unveiled this week in a press release that disguised the cancellation as an announcement of the special – but point out it has to be done in a way that leaves the door open.

“What we are trying to do, going ahead with this movie, is to ensconce Bomb Girls as an iconic show, so hopefully we can come back to the characters at some later stage,” Prupas says, pointing to British shows like Prime Suspect that have been revived after a long break. ‘Keeping the title alive is important to us. We hope it will have a future.’”

It isn’t likely the series will come back, and that’s a shame; it was one of the best things on television.

Behind the Candelabra

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas on the set of Behind the Candelabra.

Much has been made of Soderbergh’s supposed “retirement” from filmmaking, but I’m beginning to suspect that the whole thing is just a ploy to make it more of a “coup” when someone snags him for a new project. Yes, Behind the Candelabra wrapped before Soderbergh announced he was stepping down, but now he’s in talks to do a new series for Cinemax entitled The Knick starring Clive Owen — which sounds like a very interesting project indeed, and I look forward to it — but it seems to me that his self-imposed exile just makes him all the more attractive to selective, high profile projects.

Which brings me to Behind the Candelabra — does it work? In a word, no. I was rather disappointed, because at his best, as in Magic Mike (which was on HBO right before Candelabra, and thus offered an immediate and welcome contrast to the the film), he’s a really accomplished filmmaker, both in directing the actors, and staging the entire production — but here he seems content to set it up and shoot it, for as usual, Soderbergh does his own cinematography under the alias of Peter Andrews, and then cuts it together — here, in a really routine fashion — again using an alias, as Mary Ann Bernard.

The resulting film is flat, predictable, and uninvolving, and though Douglas attacks the role of Liberace with gusto, he doesn’t really have the “larger than life” punch that the character requires. The rest of the cast tackle their roles with varying degrees of success: Rob Lowe is a standout, perfectly creepy as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon; Debbie Reynolds is all but unrecognizable as Liberace’s mother, and really doesn’t make an impression; Matt Damon is appropriately wide-eyed as Scott Thorson, and Dan Ackroyd is matter-of-fact as Liberace’s business manager.

I was surprised to see former sitcom star Paul Reiser in a very small role as Thorson’s attorney near the end of the film, and the film is certainly well mounted, with no skimping on production values. But in the end, it feels exploitational and hammered out, as most TV movies are. Magic Mike reminded me just how good Soderbergh can be when he really clicks with a project, but Behind the Candelabra too often descends into clichés and has a really syrupy finish — by the end of the film, I really didn’t care about anyone; the whole thing seemed like an animated waxworks, and little more.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Behind the Candelabra.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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