Michael Douglas as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra.
“I don’t give concerts. I put on a show!” So said Liberace, the flamboyant, hugely talented pianist who endeared himself to millions during his 40-year career. Although the entertainer passed away in 1987, his story is set to make a comeback this year, courtesy of HBO’s long-awaited biopic Behind the Candelabra.
All-star lineups on both sides of the camera have been working for years to mount this production. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie is based on the memoir of the same name by Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson and throws open the (embellished) curtains on the performer’s private life. A magnetic Michael Douglas plays Liberace, while Matt Damon takes on the unlikely role of his young boy toy.
“Those two actors are great in all their roles,” says Jerry Weintraub, the film’s executive producer, who has produced Vegas-set blockbusters such as Ocean’s Eleven and became friendly with Liberace in Vegas decades ago. Douglas and Damon “went for it 100 percent,” he says, “and that’s why it looks so great on the screen.”
Part of committing themselves fully meant pulling no punches about the passionate yet volatile relationship between Liberace and Thorson, although ultimately it’s up to the viewer to fill in the blanks. “You don’t see any nudity,” Weintraub says. “We went as far as the audience takes us.”
One aspect of the production that is certainly not left to the imagination is the stunning set design, particularly for Liberace’s 1970s stage show. Production designer Howard Cummings was able to use the theater at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, where the spectacle took place in the 1970s, with Douglas seated at the showman’s actual pianos. Because Liberace’s 26-foot mirrored Rolls Royce was an important prop in the show, the hotel’s 78-foot-wide stage was perhaps the only location big enough for the scene. “The fact that we got to use the real [space],” Cummings says, “was critical.”
Equally advantageous was the longevity of both the hotel’s archive and its stage crew. “The hotel still had the original plans for the layout of the seats,” Cummings says. “And there was a lot of the same staff who had been there when he was.” In fact, one of the lighting technicians who operated the spotlight following Douglas during filming had done the same thing for Liberace himself. “They were a great help,” Cummings says. “It was just awesome.”
But even without his fancy sets, Liberace would have been a powerful force. “He was a master showman,” Weintraub says. “But the interesting part of Liberace is that he was a great pianist, one of our greatest. That’s what made it work.”