By SASHA KLAVER
Photos Courtesy of CLAUDETTE BARIUS/HBO
The rings. The furs. The Rolls-Royce; sequins; rhinestones and glamour. But above all else, the candelabra has come to signify Liberace, one of the world’s most beloved, best-paid and most controversial performers. Part piano virtuoso, part Vegas showman, Liberace came to define the word “excess,” and only HBO could capture this in a stunning, saddening and enthralling new film depicting the drama of Liberace’s relationship with his one-time lover, Scott Thorsen.
Kingpin producer Jerry Weintraub (Oceans 11 franchise) and veteran director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic) faced an uphill battle when trying to get Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay (based on Thorsen’s book) made. Traditional networks wouldn’t touch the script because of its vivid depiction of Liberace’s closeted gay love affair. But in typical fashion, HBO whole-heartedly embraced the project, making a powerful movie that is sure to become a smash with audiences everywhere.
Born in Wisconsin in the 1930s, Liberace was a boy who came from a family of modest means. Born to a Polish mother and an Italian father, Wladziu Valentino Liberace was a prodigy from the start. Memorizing incredibly difficult piano pieces by age seven, “Walter,” as his family called him, would rise to become the highest-paid entertainer in the world for his day. But it wasn’t just his magnificent piano skills that would earn him his fortune; it was his signature flamboyance and showmanship that won him the hearts of millions, including kings and queens (the royal kind) across the globe. But behind the money, the lifestyle and that charming smile was a home life that reflected the performer’s addiction to excess.
When Scott Thorsen (Matt Damon) walked into Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life it seemed like a match destined to happen. Officially Liberace’s chauffeur, Thorsen was the piano genius’s secret lover of seven years, who even underwent plastic surgery at Liberace’s request to look like a younger version of the performer. While Liberace was never out of the closet in public, it was the worst kept secret of the entertainment world. The Daily Mirror was even successfully sued by Liberace for libel when its reporter, Cassandra (William Connor) wrote that Liberace was “…the summit of sex—the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” And Liberace’s sexuality officially burst into the headlines (as opposed to the butts of countless comedians’ jokes) when Thorsen sued Liberace for palimony.
The Vegas show stopper continued to deny his sexuality for the rest of his life until February 4, 1987, when Liberace succumbed to pneumonia caused by AIDS. And even then, in death, his doctors tried to cover up the true reason for his passing. It was not until later on that the truth would come to light. In this way, Liberace’s story is indicative of the lives of a generation of gay men consigned to the closet by society’s intolerance. Executive Producer Weintraub noted, “I wanted to make a film to show how we’ve grown.” He continued, “to show the progression of our human race, of our country, of all the people in the world about this subject. Same-sex unions are recognized now and permitted in certain places. Being gay has lost its social stigma.”
And what better place to do it than at HBO? With the muscle (and budget) of the brave network behind them, the makers of the film set out and succeeded in creating a picture that is as authentic as the man it depicts. Using Liberace’s actual pianos, cars, performance spaces and penthouse, Behind the Candelabra remains true to the last detail of Liberace’s life. Filmed on-location in Palm Springs, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the sets, costumes and hair are spectacularly styled, and the entire production transports the audience to a time and place of extravagance, excess and glamour.
So turn off the lights and light a few candles, and tune in to HBO on Sunday, May 26 for the world premiere of Behind the Candelabra.
Photo 1: Michael Douglas as Liberace, Photo 2: Matt Damon as Scott Thorsen, Photos 3 and 4: Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (photos by Claudette Barius/HBO)