My first meeting with the Liberace phenomenon came about many years ago while I was watching one of the episodes of The Muppet Show. The fabulous world of music
and a bird choir assisting the pianist. I remembered his tail-coat – glittering with thousands of tiny Swarovski’s crystals – and Chopin’s music.
For us, brought up in a drastically different cultural surrounding, Liberace was a figure so abstract, it was almost
impossible to understand. For Americans, the pianist – whose mother was Polish – is a true symbol. Like Elvis,
Route 66 or a donut.
Wladziu, the pianist…
Who was he? Born in 1919 to an Italian-Polish family, Wladziu Valentino Liberace changed American show business for ever. The young talented pianist made his first steps in the concert halls under the guidance of Ignacy Jan Paderewski. It was Paderewski who convinced the shy Wladziu to use only his surname as his stage name. And so Liberace was born – a showman, a buffoon, an eccentric and a star. Switching the concert halls for nightclubs, he started focusing on developing his own musical style, which he himself called “pop with a bit of classics”. He travelled the States with a custom made instrument, on top of which he would place a candelabra – a habit he would be known for. He was the first “classical” pianist with his own TV show. He was panned by music critics for his showmanship, ignoring scores and simplifying the compositions, but Liberace didn’t care much. He loved his audience and was loved back. In 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the top-earning American musicians (in 1953 he grossed around 2 million dollars just from playing concerts). His shows were always spectacular and his pompous style influenced many artists such as Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Madonna or Lady Gaga. But his private life was far from what millions of his female fans imagined. Liberace was a closeted homosexual. The pianist was one
of the first victims of AIDS. He died in 1987 due to AIDS-related complications.
The big screen…
Many directors wanted to make a film based on Liberace’s life. When Steven Soderbergh called producer Jerry Weintraub and expressed his interest in the project, Weintraub was highly enthusiastic. “First of all, I knew Liberace and to me he was always an exceptional figure, well ahead of his times” – says the producer. “And when Steven wants to do something, I’m always in for it, because he’s one of my favorite directors.” For Soderbergh, who is known for such films as Traffic, Solaris and Sex, Lies and Videotape, this film marks a change in his artistic life. He decided to stop directing cinema films. From now on, he’ll be working for TV. Behind the Candelabra is his first movie
for HBO. And he took off with an outstanding piece of work that won him eleven EMMY awards. The key to success was his approach to the film’s main character. “I wanted people to understand that Liberace was no fool” – says the director. “He was an exceptionally talented and gifted musician. A true showman. It’s rare to see such a talent and I was desperate for people to see this. Otherwise they wouldn’t take him seriously.
He was really amazing.” The film cast was superb. Soderbergh knows how to convince actors to join him. He enlisted
not only Michael Douglas (Liberace) and Matt Damon (Scott Thorson) but also Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe (great as plastic surgeon, dr. Jack Startz), Tom Papa, Paul Reiser and Debbie Reynolds (Liberace’s mother).
Michael Douglas was thrilled to have a chance of playing the eccentric music legend. “It’s an exceptional part” – he says. “You know you’ll never be quite like Liberace and you have to try and play him the way that is comfortable for you but at the same time remaining true to the original character. And I had to be attractive to Matt Damon! It was really a big love story – they truly loved each other – with many great, funny and happy moments. And yet it ended tragically.” It’s true. The film was based on a biography written by the artist’s ex-lover, Scott Thorson. Behind the Candelabra is a bitter-sweet book about highs and lows, rows, addictions and money. “What really touched me while I was reading the book, and what I wanted to transfer to the film, was all the talking between Liberace and Thorson. They speak like a regular couple. But of course, the setting is not ordinary. We decided to treat their relationship with proper respect, because that was my impression about it – that it was very serious and much longer than Liberace’s other relationships. I tried very much not to turn it into a caricature” – says the director. “Their love ended on a bad note but before that, they had many wonderful memories, many highs and lows and just everyday situations that happen in every long-term relationship. I don’t consider Scott to be calculating. He was really devoted to Liberace,
that’s why he took it all so hard” – adds Matt Damon.
Like a bird of paradise…
Liberace loved luxury. He made no secret about it. And he had every right to do so. His family was poor, he worked really hard for his success (he passed out on stage on different occasions, had liver disease). He teased the audience about his fabulous, crystal-studded tail-coat with a several-meter long train. His breathtaking stage costumes amaze to this day (or cause a fair amount of disgust, depending on who you ask). From today’s perspective, his onstage entourage seems a bit like a quasi-baroque kitsch, but still really interesting. His costumes were painstakingly handmade from the best available fabric, with lots of accessories, crystals, silver and gold twine. You think
that Rob Halford entering the stage on a Harley during Judas Priest shows is the ultimate sign of egotism and kitsch? Liberace used to get onstage in a Rolls-Royce. A white one. And big.
The film was shot in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas. Many costumes, props and places seen in the film were actually owned by the pianist. The film crew worked in his LA apartment, a post office in West Hollywood where Scott Thorson worked after their ways parted, a church where Liberace’s funeral took place and the former LA Hilton Hotel’s stage where he used to perform.
Howard Cummings, the film’s set designer, had a particularly hard task trying to recreate Liberace’s world between 1977 and 1982. In six weeks 30 locations were created, that helped in presenting the character both on stage and in his private life. This demanded a thorough research and many hours spent on watching the pianist’s shows. Cummings decided to use mirrors as a metaphor of the artist’s life, so they are everywhere – on stage and at his house. They shine, glitter and create optical illusions. Las Vegas museum devoted to the artist proved very helpful to the crew. Costumes, works of art and many props used on the set were taken from that museum. A great deal of work was also done by a costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick. Her team created countless stage and everyday clothes for both Liberace and Scott. Many of those were copies of the pair’s real outfits. Throughout the film, Michael Douglas
and Matt Damon change their clothes over sixty times. And the film itself? I liked it. The crew did great in recreating
the atmosphere of late 70s. The innocent world of nightclubs, drinking champagne at midnight and fulfilling even the most fancy whims. The cast is great. Michael Douglas returns after his battle with cancer in one of his finest creations (deservedly won the EMMY award for Outstanding Lead Actor). His Wladziu is both a ham and a tender lover, egocentric and a philanthropist. A true professional on stage and a helpless child off stage. Matt Damon is also fantastic. Rob Lowe plays the part of his life as a plastic surgeon and Debbie Reynolds (Liberace’s mother) is just stunning.
It’s not really a shame that Soderbergh quit Hollywood. If he’s going to direct more amazing TV films, like Behind the Candelabra, then I’m not even slightly worried about his career.