Steven Soderbergh’s latest film Behind the Candelabra was a well-received, critical success for HBO. It’s no surprise that the cable network would want it; Michael Douglas and Matt Damon turned in great performances portraying the iconic Liberace and his younger lover, it’s a period piece with great costumes, and it’s a controversial story. How controversial, though? So much so that no one would release it in theaters, Soderbergh claimed back in January.
Nobody would make it. We went to everybody in town. We needed $5 million. Nobody would do it…They said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after Brokeback Mountain, by the way. Which is not as funny as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us…[The people at HBO are] great and they’re really good at what they do, and ultimately I think more people will see it, and that’s all you care about. Studios were going, “We don’t know how to sell it.” They were scared.
Sounds believable, I suppose. Hollywood can be a pretty risk-averse place. But some studios pushed back against Soderbergh’s claims recently, as Mother Jones‘Asawin Suebsaeng points out today, with some saying that the director was concocting another dramatic fiction. Soderbergh stood by his story, however, telling Suebsaeng that it makes no sense that he wouldn’t try to get the film released in theaters, particularly with two big stars attached.
“I usually let this stuff slide, but this just sounded too fascinating to let drop,” Soderbergh tells Mother Jones. “Since I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories, I propose a counter conspiracy theory: Warner Brothers never developed [the script for Behind the Candelabra] and didn’t…put it into turn around. [Producer] Jerry Weintraubdid not spend six months working with a woman named Cathy Morgan to sell territories all over the world with contractual contingencies that these deals would be voided if we didn’t have a domestic partner…I never had a conversation that the economics would not work because the audience [for this film] was too limited. Everybody in town was not aware that this project was available, despite the big names attached. And we never wanted to make this a theatrical release because I never wanted [Matt Damon and Michael Douglas] to be eligible for Academy Awards. That’s my counter conspiracy theory, and your readers can decide which of these two theories is more plausible.”
Read the rest of the convoluted controversy details here. It’s a story of in-fighting, back-biting, and Hollywood intrigue. Soderbergh has claimed that he’s retiring from making films, but in case he decides to come out of retirement, the tale of a put-upon director pushing back against a conservative, risk-averse industry sounds exactly like the type of narrative he could do justice to.