When Matt Damon gazed at Michael Douglas in full Liberace regalia during production of the HBO bio-pic Behind The Candelabra, did he find him attractive? “Very, very attractive,” said Damon, who plays Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson. While the actor may be speaking somewhat tongue in cheek, the film is full-on drama.
This weekend at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Los Angeles, the two Academy Award winners, along with Director Steven Soderbergh and Executive Producer Jerry Weintraub, gathered for a panel to talk up the much-anticipated film, set to air this Spring. [Unfortunately a screener of the film has not yet been made available to critics by HBO.]
Believe it or not, the first spark of a conversation about Douglas stepping into Liberace’s robes went back to shooting the 2000 film Traffic, which Soderbergh directed and Douglas starred with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones. “Somewhere early in the shoot,” Douglas remembered, “Steven said, ‘You know, have you ever thought about Liberace?’ And I looked at him and I thought, ‘Is this guy messing with me, you know?’”
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Douglas may not have taken Soderbergh seriously at the time, but the Academy Award-winning director wasn’t joking. Though he admitted during the panel that he had a hard time finding the right take on the life of Wladziu Valentino Liberace…until he has given the book Behind The Candelabra, the 1991 autobiography written by Thorson after Liberace’s 1987 death. The book chronicles six years in the couple’s relationship.
For Douglas, playing Liberace wasn’t as difficult as one might think. “Characters are normally a little easier to play than things that might be closer to yourself,” he explained. “So, actually, it’s sort of a license of freedom. It frees you up tremendously. And it was really a treat to have a chance to play this part.”
Damon agreed, citing the extravagant wardrobe and lifestyle that Liberace was known for that helped him get into character. “There were the clothes that we actually had that were used as set dressing,” the actor explained. “We weren’t allowed to touch them because they were from [Liberace’s] collection, but they were used as set dressing. But even the clothes that we wore around the house…I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this thing than I had in the previous 15 projects, literally.”
And perhaps in a nod to how audiences related to Liberace even though he was so over-the-top and defined glamour, Soderbergh said that there’s much in how the relationship between the pianist and Thorson is portrayed in the film that will be accessible to audiences. “One of the aspects of the book and the story that appealed to me,” the Magic Mike director said, “was that at a certain point in the film, the discussions that [Liberace and Scott are] having are discussions that every couple has at a certain point. And what’s unusual about it, obviously, is the environment in which these conversations are taking place.”
And while it’s hard to think of Liberace without some element of camp, Behind The Candelabra is not taking a campy approach in its portrayal. “We take the relationship seriously,” Soderbergh explained. “My feeling, based on some of the research we did, indicated that it was a real relationship and it was, up to that point, I think, the longest relationship Liberace had had…I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of their characters or of the relationship.”
Soderbergh also expressed that he is well aware of the fact that during the time Liberace and Thorson were together, they had to keep their relationship private, which more than likely wasn’t a good thing for the relationship. “There’s no question that it’s unfortunate to see the movie through a contemporary lens…they weren’t allowed to be as open back then as people are today and that that definitely exerted pressure on the two of them and the relationship.”
While Liberace is no longer with us, Thorson is still alive and Weintraub answered a question about whether or not he was involved in the film. “Matt didn’t talk to Scott Thorson as far as I know,” Weintraub said. “I did all the conversations with Scott. He had no involvement in the making of the film whatsoever except that it was his story and he wrote it in a book. [Writer] Richard LaGravenese and Steven Soderbergh took the story from the book, and that’s the story that you see on the screen.”
And while he didn’t know him well, Douglas said he did remember Liberace from when he was younger. “I met him briefly two or three times when my father [actor Kirk Douglas] had a house in Palm Springs and Liberace had a house nearby,” Douglas said. “Just passing in the car, I remember seeing him. You couldn’t miss his car. But [I] never had, like, an evening with him or anything like that.”
Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s mother in the film and Douglas was asked if she had any Liberace stories to share since she did know him and even appeared on his variety series. “Most of Debbie’s stories,” Douglas said, grinning, “I’m afraid we really can’t tell…about anybody, not just about Lee, but just about anybody. But she did have some very spicy, spicy stuff to say.”
Finally, Damon expressed that while they all had fun in the making of the film, the project is anything but a joke. “It’s the kind of fun that when you’ve made a lot of movies, it’s really rare to even see a script this good. It was so complex, their relationship. Richard [LaGravenese] so got this dynamic. Whether this was the actual dynamic or not, I completely believed what he’d written and those aspects of the power dynamic and what it felt like was if this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you’d feel at moments like ‘this is too intimate, maybe I shouldn’t be here.’ But it’s between a man and a man and I’ve never seen that movie before.”
In addition, Damon explained, “We took it very seriously. These were people’s lives and we wanted to get it right and we wanted to get the script right. And we had the best director possible and we just worked really hard on it and were extremely happy to do it because we know how rare something like this is.”