Behind the Candelabra stars Michael Douglas as Liberace

Photo courtesy of Margie Barron

Liberace and Margie Barron in 1971.

Some interesting choices were made when director Steven Soderbergh cast the HBO movie Behind the Candelabra, premiering Sunday, May 26. Michael Douglas portrays Liberace, and Matt Damon plays his young lover Scott Thorson, who wrote the memoir on which the movie is based.

At the HBO interview session for the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, Douglas and Damon were on hand to talk about their attention-grabbing roles. Douglas revealed Soderbergh approached him when they were making Traffic 12 years ago, “and I thought he was messing with me.” He praised Damon for making it a great experience saying, “I don’t think I would have had the courage at that point in my career to take this on.” And with good humor Douglas noted that he wanted to “make myself attractive to Matt.” There were giggles when Damon told the critics that he found Douglas “very, very attractive,” and that some of Liberace’s actual clothes were used as set dressings, but the actors weren’t allowed to wear them.

Soderbergh and executive producer Jerry Weintraub were also there. All of that award-winning talent (Douglas, Damon, and Soderbergh have multiple Oscars, Weintraub has an Emmy) joined forces to create a production that seems to be as outrageous and extravagant as the man who embraced over-the-top showmanship long before Elvis, Elton John, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and all who followed.

The virtuoso pianist with the trademark candelabra is a fascinating subject for a movie. The HBO production team insisted they wanted to show the “humanity” of the uber-entertainer by telling the story of a deep relationship between two men in a time when such unions were unthinkable.

Soderbergh said the book appealed to him as a storyteller, and Thorson’s story was adapted by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. “It’s an unusual setting, but we take the relationship seriously. The conversations are the kind that every couple has,” he explained.

Douglas admitted playing such a colorful character was liberating for him. “It was really a treat to have a chance to play this part. Characters are normally a little easier to play than things that might be closer to yourself. It’s sort of a license of freedom.” Douglas said he looked at a tremendous amount of film clips to find a comfortable balance that wouldn’t have him become an impersonator yet capture Liberace’s campy spirit.

Co-starring are Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, and Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Music for the HBO movie was adapted by the late Marvin Hamlisch.

Producer Jerry Weintraub knew Liberace well and was happy to share his personal observations. “He was a wonderful guy, a great host. I went to his home many times for dinner. I was always impressed with his graciousness, the way he treated us. We used to enter his house in Palm Springs through the garage, and we’d go and sit down in the back of his Rolls-Royce and somebody would serve us drinks. He was a pretty wild guy and very nice,” Weintraub remembered.

Jerry talked about Liberace with great fondness, and I agree with him because I have my own memories of Liberace. I worked with his show back in 1971 for a couple of months. I was a mere go-fer, but he couldn’t have been nicer. It was very comfortable to hang out in his dressing room on show days, and he always enjoyed being a gracious host to VIPs or just me. Lee, as we all called him, showed great appreciation for his loyal beloved fans too. I saw him greet them backstage as if they were part of his family, and in a sense they were, because Lee was most at home when he was on stage with his larger than life persona in the spotlight. And off stage “Mr. Showmanship” was just as fabulous, never hiding his flamboyant lifestyle.

Because HBO’s Behind the Candelabra focuses on the relationship and breakup of Lee and Scott, I had reservations about the film diminishing Liberace’s life, accomplishments, and how he was the first to bring unparalleled showmanship to concert performances. But Jerry assured me that I’d “see everything about Liberace that you could possibly want to see. Everybody appreciated him and his career, and I think that’s captured on film.” Tune in.

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