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HBO Films Shine in Cannes

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Now that the Cannes Film Festival is drawing to a close, it's clear that HBO has grown into a major film-making force beyond the small screen. Three of the well-received "Official Selection" titles--Behind the Candelabra, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, and Seduced and Abandoned--are noteworthy not only for their anchor in "reality," but their top-notch quality as movies, each directed by a renowned filmmaker.

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Photo credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO: Frank Langella (left), Christopher Plummer (right)

Behind the Candelabra is the riveting and often hilarious biopic of the aging, flamboyant Liberace (a resplendent Michael Douglas) from the perspective of his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, remarkably "pretty" with long blond tresses). While it is a very different film from The Great Gatsby (which opened the 2013 Fest), both depict extravagant lifestyles perceived by an outsider who becomes a (temporary) insider. And, despite the 40-year age difference between the protagonists, director Steven Soderbergh has made Behind the Candelabra a love story as well.

Richard LaGravenese's savvy screenplay gives all the actors a chance to shine, especially Rob Lowe: although his role as a 1979 plastic surgeon (who pushes "The California Diet," including a hefty dose of drugs) is small, he steals all his scenes. After jauntily performing a facelift on Liberace, he later (at "Lee's" request) reshapes Scott's face, especially because the famed musician wants to legally adopt him.

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Photo credit: Claudette Barius/HBO. Matt Damon (left), Michael Douglas (right).

At the Chopard party after the premiere, fireworks were suddenly seen from the terrace of the Martinez Hotel. Although they turned out to not be connected to the film, Liberace would have loved the effect. (His costumes shimmered so brightly that he might have been combustible himself.)

Amid the flowing champagne, Asian noodles and delectable shrimp being sautéed by chefs a few yards away, LaGravenese said that Soderbergh did not want him or Matt Damon to meet the real Scott, "just as he didn't want Julia Roberts to meet Erin Brockovich until after filming." This provided them with greater freedom. Douglas, whose fingers really seem to be flying over the piano keys, admitted that--although he knows a bit of music---he didn't have to play the notes all the way down.

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Photo credit: Claudette Barius/HBO. Steven Soderbergh (left), Michael Douglas (right).

Soderbergh enjoyed the unanimous praise, and grinned when I asked if he is becoming the William Wyler of his generation (referring to his versatility with such recent films as Che, Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra). On the other hand, he could be considered more of an auteur because he is also the (uncredited) cinematographer of his movies. If the Coen Brothers use pseudonyms like "Roderick Jaynes" as editor, the DP "Peter Andrews" is none other than Soderbergh.

Stephen Frears, on the other hand, bristles at the notion of the "auteur" (his credits include My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen) and introduced Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight with a typically self-deprecating line: acknowledging the downpour outside, "I know you're all here because of the weather," he quipped. His more important remark, to an audience including Brian De Palma, was, "This is a story nobody knows."

From a script by Shawn Slovo (based on the book by Max Wallace and Howard L. Bingham), Frears does a fine job of dramatizing how the Supreme Court justices initially resisted, and then took on, the appeal of Muhammad Ali in 1971, after he was denied Conscientious Objector status. While not on the same scale as Spielberg's Lincoln, it brings to cinematic life a little-known chapter of American history. And, like 12 Angry Men, it chronicles the shifting decision-making process of men whose votes are subject to manipulation, negotiation, and a noble outcome. In both films, a verdict initially seems inevitable ... until discussion turns it around completely.

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is an ensemble piece whose focus--despite the title--is not the boxer ("Cassius Clay," like "Liberace," was one of the most famous men of the late 1960s), but the Supreme Court Justices, especially John Harlan II (Christopher Plummer), whose nobility lies partly in his capacity to change his mind. Archival footage is deftly used to capture the time that Clay changed his name and claimed Conscientious Objector status on religious grounds: having embraced the Nation of Islam, he refused to be drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War.

The casting of Plummer and Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger (a Nixon appointee and friend) adds gravitas to their roles as senior justices: after all, Langella has incarnated Nixon, and one of Plummer's best roles was Mike Wallace in The Insider. As Thurgood Marshall (who recused himself from the case), Danny Glover has some juicy scenes, and the casting of director Barry (Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy) Levinson as Justice Potter Stewart is spot-on. For younger viewers, the most intriguing casting might be Benjamin Walker as Harlan's new clerk, fresh from playing Brick opposite Scarlett Johansson in Broadway's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as well as the title role of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Seduced and Abandoned is the most aggressively "real" of the three films, recently acquired for broadcast by HBO. Last year, director James Toback and Alec Baldwin were omnipresent at the Cannes Fest, filming interviews with masters like Scorsese and Coppola, while pursuing investors for their fiction film set in Iraq ("Last Tango in Tikrit" was a provisional title). The culmination of their efforts was not an erotic narrative movie, but this pungent chronicle about loving old films while trying to finance a new one. That makes Seduced and Abandoned a perfect movie for Cannes in 2013.

Its ending dedication to Selma Toback--about the presence of her absence being everywhere--made me think of Roger Ebert, the recently deceased critic who was such an integral part of the Festival experience. His legacy was celebrated at the American Pavilion Thursday by a panel, as well as a photo taken of "500 Thumbs Up" to offer to his widow, Chaz Ebert.

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Photo credit: Karen Ballard.

I moderated the panel consisting of Kenneth Turan (LA TIMES), Michael Phillips (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) and Eric Kohn (INDIEWIRE). Phillips reminded us of Ebert's mantra: "It's not what the film is about; it's 'how' it's about it." We praised his erudition, passion and populism. Chaz Ebert thanked the group, and quoted her husband about how "cinema expands your imagination."

I was reminded of that one night later, seated beside Bruce Dern (star of Alexander Payne's Nebraska) at a Festival dinner. After he mentioned being interviewed by Ebert when The Great Gatsby (in which he played Tom Buchanan) was released almost 40 years ago, I told him about the commemorative panel: the actor said, "Roger was the last film critic who dared to dream."