An entertaining movie with unpredictable twists, Side Effects (Soderbergh, 2013) had me thinking. It is certainly representative of our times, when so many people are on medication. It came to mind, then, what others have proposed—that some of our difficulties may be unintended consequences of introducing new technologies into our daily lives, i.e., side effects of civilizing (Cowan, 1983; Brynjolfsson, 1993).
Why do so many people need medication today?
In all areas over the past two centuries, mankind has made mind-blowing advancements—especially in technology and healthcare. Our lives are more convenient than ever before with all that the world has to offer at our fingertips. So, why do so many people need medication Continue reading Side Effects of Civilizing→
The story in Side Effects reveals differences between Great Britain and America in attitudes toward medicine. In America, we want a pill for everything: a pill to lose weight, a pill to ease anxiety, a pill to focus, a pill to sleep, a pill to lower cholesterol, a pill to eradicate pain.
Pills are often talked about among teachers in break rooms, between parents on playgrounds, and among my fellow bridge players. Recently, as I was trying to concentrate on making a bid during an intense game, my playing partner was casually discussing a recent prescription.
Yet, we are all aware how addiction to certain prescription drugs have wrecked havoc on people’s lives. During a family friend’s college years, he received his Adderal medication, prescribed for ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), in the mail on a regular basis, which his mother disguised in mint wrappers. Otherwise, his fellow college students would be scrambling over the elixir of focus.
Members of my family are dependent on pills for various reasons, from ADHD to anxiety. My teenage granddaughter can name which of her friends take medication. Some private schools even mandate medication for enrollment of certain students. This is America, where pills, and the psychiatrists who prescribe them, are embraced with open arms.
British attitudes are different
England is different. The stiff upper lip is not a myth. Generally speaking, the British do not brazenly broadcast what medications they take or what psychiatrist they are currently seeing. While Americans openly seek referrals for psychiatrists to help better themselves, the British consider it more negatively as a sign of sickness.
British society appears to have little tolerance for individuals who fail to maintain their self-control, and there seems to be a tendency to label such individuals sick and in need of treatment. For example, while British psychiatrists seem less likely to label patients “sick” than psychiatrists of other countries, the symptoms that they tend to overemphasize are those that indicate the patient has lost self-control (Payer, 1988, p. 112-113).
This of course affects the career paths of psychiatrists in England as opposed to psychiatrists in America.
Director Steven Soderbergh relied on British actor Jude Law to portray this insane contrast between Brits and Americans in Side Effects, which starts with blood and gore, ends with tears, and jerks the audience in wild directions in between. The brilliant writing on a timely subject matter keeps the viewer intensely intrigued.
Pills required in today’s world?
It is easy to broadly criticize, and shake your head at the sheer number of pills being prescribed in America today. However, there is no denying that these pills are effective, otherwise why are doctors prescribing them left and right? Certain people do need certain pills to function in today’s world, which is not a world for which the human species evolved. (Anthropology speak).
For example, only in recent history of mankind are children expected to sit in a classroom at a desk, focus on the teacher, and learn from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week. Many kids with ADHD are incapable of this. Thus, schools ask that these children be medicated to make the teachers’ jobs easier. This is medicating humans to adapt to today’s world.
Researchers believe that ADHD was actually an advantage hundreds of years ago when human beings needed the energy and easy distractibility to escape from predators and to migrate from place to place in search of food and shelter. There is a theory that the high incidence of ADHD in America stems from those in Europe who were “fiddle-footed” and willing to risk their lives to board a ship and sail across the Atlantic to the unknown. Maybe ADHD is still an advantage today as many high achievers have it and are able to channel it to their benefit. Channing Tatum, one of the stars in this movie is reported to have the condition (Nall, 2016).
It’s the side effects that give people pause
Yet it’s the side effects that give people pause. Watching my husband agonize over leg pain that is a side effect of Lipitor, which is a pill to reduce cholesterol, gives me reason to address health issues with nutrition and exercise, rather than to automatically pop a pill, and cope with side effects. This approach seems similar to what a Brit would do.
However, pills work. Otherwise, why are the doctors who are doing the prescribing also taking the pills themselves? To embody the character Dr. Jonathan Banks in Side Effects, Jude Law studied the field of psychiatry and has respect for what psychiatrists do to help people with real problems. England seems to be catching up with America in acknowledging this. Do you doubt that in the movie Dr. Banks was taking medication himself?
In the year 2013, after releasing the movie Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh decided that directing movies was not fun anymore and announced his retirement. Since Side Effects was to be his last theatrical film, all the actors in that cast felt honored to be included in his last big fling.
Actors like working with director Soderbergh
Actors who have worked with Soderbergh have appreciated the opportunity because he is said to create a great environment, work fast, and doesn’t stop for naps or endless takes. Every actor in Side Effects said that Soderbergh did a lot of the work for them. There weren’t many holes in the script.
For Catherine Zeta-Jones, this was the third time working with him. She was drawn to the Side Effects script because “it gets inside the mind. The audience has to think.”
Channing Tatum had to change his rough and tumble persona to play a white-collar character. Soderbergh also wanted the actor to change the way he spoke, which Tatum found most challenging. An accent would not have been a problem, but normal speech is difficult.
Rooney Mara prepared for her part as a depressed person by talking to people who suffer from depression and by watching YouTube videos on the topic.
Vinessa Shaw, who plays Dierdre Banks in the movie, said she had to battle internal insecurity, and to keep from thinking, “I’m not good enough.”
Soderbergh not really “retired”
Every actor expressed regret that Soderbergh would not direct anymore, but they need not worry. Soderbergh has not been living anywhere near a “retired state” for the past three years. He told GQ, “I want to be there, but I don’t want to be the director. I want to be in the band, but I don’t want to be the front man this time.”
He had his first attempt at the New York stage with his off-Broadway show, “The Library,” which follows the aftermath of a school shooting. “I’m defining the success of this play by how scared I was doing it.”
Other projects included directing 10 episodes of “The Knick,” editing movies that are not his own: Psycho and Heaven’s Gate, importing Bolivian liquor that dates back to 1530, which he learned about while filming Che (2008a, 2008b) in 2007, and tweeting an entire novella. (Remember that’s 140 characters at a time.)
He has a website, Extension 765, which is a place for his random thoughts about film, cable TV, and anything else on his mind. He also posts the movies he’s seen, books he’s read, and TV shows he has watched.
Will he return to directing feature films?
Will Steven Soderbergh go back to directing big time movies? The word is, “Yes.” He may take on The Panama Papers (Fleming, 2016), a movie based on Jake Bernstein’s forthcoming book, Secrecy World, about the biggest data leak in history (Stack, Erlanger, Rousseau, Forsythe, MacFarquhar, & Castle, 2016).
Let’s hope this news is correct. Then maybe from there, he can do Toole’s, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).
Bernstein, J. (forthcoming in 2017). Secrecy World. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Bickford, L., del Toro, B. (Producers), & Soderbergh, S. (Director). (2008a). Che: The Argentine [Motion Picture]. United States: IFC Films.
Bickford, L., del Toro, B. (Producers), & Soderbergh, S. (Director). (2008b). Che: Guerilla [Motion Picture]. United States: IFC Films.
di Bonaventura, L., Jacobs, G., & Burns, S. (Producers), & Soderbergh, S. (Director). (2013). Side Effects [Motion Picture]. United States: OpenRoad Films.
Steven Spielberg, possibly the most recognizable name in Hollywood, has entertained and educated America for decades with his films—Jaws (1975), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones (1984), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998)—to name a very few. Steven Spielberg’s resume lists one big-grossing blockbuster after another, and no other director, producer, or writer comes close to duplicating this. He stands alone on top of the “Ivory Tower of Hollywood,” where he could rest comfortably on his laurels with a career that goes beyond even his wildest dreams.
Steven Soderbergh inspired by Spielberg
Yet, there is another successful Steven in the movie-making business, set on that course by receiving serious exposure to movies from his movie-buff father, coupled with an awe-inspired viewing of Jaws—directed by Spielberg, of course. This man is Steven Soderbergh and he can boast an impressive resume as well. Soderbergh spun out his own movie-making magic with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Traffic (2000), the Ocean’s Eleven series (2001), and Magic Mike (2012). His movie Erin Brockovich (2000) won him a much-deserved Oscar.
Soderbergh’s calling – a film on Liberace
Born in 1963, Soderbergh was among a generation familiar with America’s infatuation with the flamboyant Liberace—an outrageous pianist, singer, and actor. Soderbergh felt called to do a film on Liberace, but struggled with a framework to base it upon. When he came across the book written by Liberace’s alleged lover, Scott Thorson—Behind the candelabra: My life with Liberace (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990), he knew how he was going to preserve Liberace on film. However, finding a studio willing to finance a project is the necessary evil for every director with good ideas in Hollywood.
Directors can easily round up the best among available screenwriters, costume designers, actors, prop designers, etc., but coming up with the money to make the movie is the first order of business. Even in this age of enlightenment for LGBT causes, studios are still skittish about financing gay-themed movies. It’s all about return on investment. The concern about the Liberace film was whether mainstream America would open their wallets to watch unsettling scenes of an older man romancing a teenage boy. Producer Jerry Weintraub, another movie-making legend, said this about his attraction to the project (HBO, 2013):
What excites me is story and character. . . . The other thing that excites me is working with people like Steven Soderbergh. He and I have a great relationship. That excited me. Working with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon excited me. Working with Richard LaGravenese’s script excited me. Working with Marvin Hamlisch excited me. The people involved are so creative and compelling; I’d be out of my mind not to do it.
Thus, Weintraub managed to interest HBO executives with Soderbergh’s idea and a deal was eventually sealed. These executives were subsequently rewarded for their risky investment in Behind the Candelabra with two Golden Globes and numerous other awards.
Soderbergh attracts top actors to HBO
It must be a testament to Soderbergh’s reputation that he was able to attract two big-name actors, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, for a movie that was not destined for the big screen. These actors’ skills contributed enormously to Behind the Candelabra‘s success. I am wondering if we are entering an age heavily influenced by Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and home theater technology, where actors don’t think of making it to the big-screen as the ultimate determining factor of success in Hollywood. The same must go for directors.
Now today, according to IMDb (“Steven Spielberg,” 2016) Steven Spielberg has a slew of movie projects in the works, so he is not resting on his laurels anytime soon. Yet, Soderbergh has decided that the time has come to fold up his movie-making chair. He has since moved on to other ventures such as releasing a novella on Twitter (@Bitchuation). In my view, it will not be surprising when he feels called to make another movie.
Entertainers, musicians, movies, and all popular cultural items come and go, but some manage to keep their profiles high across multi generations; Elvis, The Beatles, Star Wars are examples among many. It is a safe bet that our great-great grandchildren will be reading books on a certain boy wizard named Harry.
While these cultural icons survive the test of time, there are those that belong to only the generation that first embraced them. Liberace—American pianist, singer, and actor—is clearly one of those.
20th Century “Mr. Showmanship”
Also known as “Mr. Showmanship,” Liberace’s fame spanned the mid 20th century, when many a woman had a “celebrity crush” on this flamboyant entertainer.
Liberace’s shows in Las Vegas were stuff of legend, and rightly so according to my husband who saw one during a business trip. He recalls when his mother’s dressmaker replaced a framed picture of Cary Grant with one of Liberace, an entertainer who had that knack of making you feel like you were the special person in the audience, that he was performing solely for your enjoyment.
Liberace unknown to millennials
Recently while visiting in the hospital room of my granddaughter, as a steady stream of young nurses and patient care techs trickled in, I asked each one if she had heard of Liberace. They all expressed confusion, scanning their brains for mention of that unusual name. Not a one could give an affirmative response. Liberace must be slowly but surely dying that third death in which no one speaks of him or remembers him anymore. One nurse did not even bother to ask who Liberace was, and instead started talking about Prince, an entertainer that I know next to nothing about, except that my Facebook newsfeed was inundated with posts regarding his recent death.
Can there be a Liberace revival?
However, there is hope for Liberace’s name and fame to linger on for more years. For the movie, Behind the Candelabra (2013), Director Steven Soderbergh made the wise choice to cast Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson; both actors are well renowned with multi-generational appeal, and loyal audiences. In a way, Scott Thorson, his life story, and how it resonated with Steven Soderbergh, saves Liberace from becoming obsolete.
How is that? Well, Behind the Candelabra focuses on the volatile six-year relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, who is the author of the book (Thorson & Thorleifson, 1990) from which the movie is adapted. Thorson, approximately 40 years younger and Liberace’s alleged lover, was just 16 years old when their paths crossed. Yes, that might be statutory rape, but this is the entertainment business after all.
Now, how did a boy whose childhood was spent bouncing from one foster home to another end up personally involved with a world famous entertainer? It started with Thorson’s knowledge of animal care, and a chance visit backstage where Liberace invited the teenager to care for his blind dogs at home.
Thorson bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle
One does not need a psychology degree to understand how the best defense against being swept away by cults, gangs, and toxic individuals is a strong and consistent family foundation. Thorson’s family background was anything but, making him a prime target for Liberace to pick up and play with exclusively for the next six years.
Thorson was understandably bedazzled by Liberace’s glittering lifestyle, so he fully consented to the twisted sexual/father-son relationship, which included a chin implant with the purpose of looking more like the entertainer. It is not a surprise that drugs came into the picture; and Thorson became addicted, sending him into a tailspin that continues to this day with his imprisonment in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center (AP, 2014).
Thorson sues for palimony
People who come onto you strongly leave just as strongly, so it was inevitable that Liberace would eventually move on to other boys. However, after being discarded, Thorson did not go quietly into the good night. He sued Liberace for palimony, gave interviews about their relationship, and released his tell-all book, Behind the Candelabra in 1988. Intensely private about his homosexuality, Liberace would have denied all allegations and gone out of his way to counter Scott’s claims. Yet, it is that very book that caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye, and started the ball rolling toward a movie focused on Liberace, keeping him in his favorite position—in the spotlight—more than 25 years after his death.
Liberace’s entertainment continues
After Soderbergh approached a number of studios with the project, HBO took the bait, and Behind the Candelabra ended up winning two Golden Globes in 2014. While Liberace belongs to a time that is long past, Michael Douglas’s performance should give these nurses a reason to search for videos of the real Liberace on YouTube. For the essence of LIberace, they would best start with his Christmas special from 1954.