by David-Elijah Nahmod
On Sunday, May 26 at 9 p.m., HBO will premiere Behind the Candelabra, director Steven Soderbergh's eagerly anticipated biopic of Mr. Showmanship, the late Liberace. The film will focus primarily on Liberace's relationship with Scott Thorson, his much younger chauffeur/lover. Oscar winners Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star as Liberace and Thorson, respectively. Douglas is particularly impressive in his capturing of the entertainer's speech patterns and body language.
Looking at clips of Liberace today, it's difficult to believe that his primarily female audiences had no idea they were looking at a flamboyant gay man. In addition to his incomparable piano prowess, Liberace's act included prancing – sometimes flying – across the stage, clad in lavish furs and jewels. Whether he was playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata or speaking to a sold-out house, the entertainer's hand gestures were grand.
Liberace went to great pains to remain closeted during his lifetime, and the fans believed every word of it. It was a different era. "Such things" were not discussed in those days. But in fact, his lavish lifestyle included showering his much younger male lovers with expensive gifts, which often included cars and homes.
A press screener was provided to the B.A.R. for viewing. In the film, Douglas and Damon offer moving performances as Liberace and Thorson, whose sometimes stormy relationship led Thorson down a path of alcohol and drug abuse. The relationship ended badly, with Thorson suing his ex for palimony in a much-publicized case that effectively outed the superstar. But as Liberace lay dying of AIDS in 1987, the two met again. In tears they admitted that they truly loved each other.
Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese spoke to the B.A.R. about his process in telling this very complicated true-life story.
"I downloaded a lot of his music," said LaGravenese. "I watched whatever documentary or television footage I could get. But my primary source was the Scott Thorson book, which included a great deal of Liberace's biography."
LaGravenese said he also spoke to friends and relatives of Liberace. "Ray Arnett, who directed all of Liberace's shows for over 20 years, confirmed what many others have said, including Scott, that Liberace was a big-hearted, generous, loving man. Of course he was also a star, who had built his career from the ground up, coming from nothing. So he had a star's sense of entitlement and loyalty as well. He was absolutely devoted to his audiences."
The film was reportedly first pitched as a theatrical release. It found its way to HBO when director Steven Soderbergh was unable to find a studio willing to back it due to its overtly gay and sexual content. LaGravenese said that total freedom was the order of the day at HBO.
"When I wrote the scene of their lovemaking while Liberace does poppers, I didn't think it would get shot, but I wrote it, and it did." The scene made it into the final cut.
"What's important to understand, and the reason I was drawn to the story, is that these two men genuinely loved each other," said LaGravenese. "Perhaps at first there were more hidden agendas, but after a while I truly believe these two men loved each other. And that had to be at the core of the story or it's not real. Otherwise it becomes some camp parody of a relationship. I believe they had a real marriage in every way but legal."
Behind the Candelabra co-stars Dan Ackroyd as Liberace's agent, Debbie Reynolds as his mother, and Rob Lowe as a creepy plastic surgeon/pill-pusher.
For a complete schedule of all Behind the Candelabra airings, go to: www.hbo.com/movies/behind-the-candelabra/index.html