Depending on how you look at it, the genesis for Behind the Candelabra, HBO’s extravagant and surprisingly emotional Liberace biopic, happened nearly 14 years ago — or more than 40.
The film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, 50, says he watched the beloved pianist and “World’s Greatest Showman” with his parents as a kid and recognized that this was no ordinary entertainer. Revisiting those old clips years later, Soderbergh knew his opinion hadn’t changed a bit.
By then, he was filming his 2000 Oscar-winning smash Traffic with Michael Douglas.
“I was in the middle of playing the drug czar and Steven said, ‘Have you ever thought about playing Liberace?’” Douglas remembers. “I thought he was messing with me — I thought it was some sort of directorial trick. So I said, ‘Noooo.’ And I was thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ But Steven is that way.” Douglas wowed his friend with a spot-on Liberace impression and then thought little more about it. A few years later, Soderbergh called to say that he’d found a way to tell his Liberace tale: from the perspective of Scott Thorson, who spent five years loving the man he knew as Lee, then filed a $113 million palimony suit against him when the entertainer ended their relationship in 1982, leaving Thorson in a drug-addicted tailspin.
“I was flailing about trying to figure out a way in and a friend of mine told me about Scott’s book [Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace],” says Soderbergh. “Then I had a structure. I had a certain time period that I could restrict myself to so that it didn’t become this sprawling thing where I had actors playing Liberace at three different ages. I wanted to go as narrow and deep as possible, but until I had the book, I didn’t know which part of his life to focus on.”
With Douglas aboard as his Liberace, and Jerry Weintraub — a longtime Liberace pal — producing, Soderbergh took the project to an actor he knew would bring depth and honesty to the Thorson character amid the film’s eye-popping situations and settings. “Anything Steven’s doing, I’m always up for,” says Matt Damon, 42, of the role Douglas admits he would have found intimidating when he was Damon’s age. “I’ve done seven movies with him and he’s a phenomenon. It’s just that rare project where you have a great role, a great costar, a great director and a great script. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
Clothed in ornate costumes faithfully re-created by Douglas’ longtime wardrobe collaborator Ellen Mirojnick and surrounded by props and set dressings on loan from the Liberace Museum, the crew got to work telling the complex story of what the couple’s intimates insist was a bona fide marriage between the naive former foster kid and the flamboyant star who devoted himself to other people’s happiness. And did so without reducing the project to a glitzy, raunchy spectacle. “We found a good, realistic, credible tone,” says Douglas, who immersed himself so thoroughly to acquiring his character’s voice, movements and piano-playing style that his 12-year-old son Dylan developed a credible Liberace imitation just by observing his dad. “No one was winking at the camera. No one was camping it up. We all played it as straight as could be and let the story tell itself.”
Though much of Candelabra’s early buzz centered on the sex scenes between two of Hollywood’s most masculine — and happily married — movie stars, Damon says capturing the couple’s genuinely loving connection was far more daunting than, well, climbing atop his costar. “The big thing really was to make sure it felt organic and real,” he explains. “It’s the actual physical intimacy that I thought about more in terms of that being the thing that would give us away — if we don’t look like we’re an old married couple. If we don’t have a familiarity with each other when we’re in a room together that feels like these guys are in an intense, long-term thing.”
Even so, Soderbergh says, he had no intention of diluting the overt “gayness” of the film, even after every major film studio rebuffed it. His cast agreed. “It became obvious immediately that the depth of the commitment on the part of Michael and Matt was so complete and they were so unafraid of how intimate the movie is that we were going to be fine,” Soderbergh says. “I knew the script was good and once I saw how willing they were to sort of ‘jump off the cliff’ together, I really felt like, ‘OK, if I don’t have a heart attack before this is done, then we’re all going to be fine.’”
So how many discussions did happen prior to filming to ensure that audiences realized that even the most intimate scenes were hardly gratuitous?
“Uh, none!” Soderbergh laughs. “This is where having worked together really pays off, because they trusted that what I would ask for would be necessary and appropriate to the story. And I knew that they would do what I asked. Until we got there and talked about the staging of the scene, it wasn’t really discussed at all. And then once we were there, it was all very technical. I would just say, ‘Here’s how I would like to do this: Matt, you’re in the pool, you come up, camera’s going to be behind you, you get on top of Michael — and they would go ‘Great!’ Nobody ever looked at me like, ‘Really? That’s what you want me to do?’”
“What I love about the movie is that you feel like you’re a fly on the wall in somebody’s home and maybe these moments are a little too intimate and you shouldn’t be watching — but it’s two guys, instead of a man and woman,” Damon says. “I’ve never seen that movie before, so I was really excited to be the first one to make it.”
All three men agree that the film’s ultimate lesson is how different Liberace’s life and his relationship with Thorson could have been in an era when being openly gay and in love wasn’t a potential career killer. “The people who were around Lee who Steven talked to said, ‘Look, it was a marriage,’” says Damon. “Had Scott been a woman, he would have been given a settlement and they would have moved on with their lives. But it was because there was some acrimony and Scott rushed to the media that Lee dug in. They all felt that Lee would have given Scott more had Scott waited.”
Still, the lawsuit (and ensuing public revelation that Liberace was indeed gay) wasn’t the end of the duo’s tale. Ravaged by AIDS, Liberace reached out to his former lover, setting up the film’s tender, totally Liberace denouement that you truly must see to believe. “That was Steven’s one note to [screenwriter] Richard [LaGravenese] when he gave him his marching orders in writing the script,” Damon says. “He said, ‘You cannot end it on the deathbed. I don’t know what it is, but you have to figure out a way for us to see them again.’”
“It was really the ending that convinced me that this was the story to tell,” Soderbergh agrees. “The idea that it was a real relationship; that it wasn’t a joke. That made it all worthwhile.”
As did knowing that he made his final film project — at least for a time — a memorable one with some of his favorite collaborators.
“However long this sabbatical is that I’m going on, to be aware that this was the last thing I was going to do for a while and to have it be Michael and Matt and to have it be this piece was really great,” Soderbergh says. “It was a fun movie to make. And it enabled me to soak it all in, in a way that I wouldn’t have if I knew that in six months I had another movie to shoot.”
Behind the Candelabra premieres Sunday, May 26 on HBO
All photos: Claudette Barius/HBO