‘Behind the Candelabra’ 10 Years Later: Was It the Best Cast Ever?
Depending on how you look at it, the genesis for Behind the Candelabra, HBO’s 2013 extravagant, emotional Liberace biopic, happened nearly 24 years ago — or more than 50.
As May 26, 2023 marks the 10-year anniversary of the biopic, we take a look back at the critically praised film, and the amazing talent roster that brought the story to light.
The film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, told us as the time that 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 shared with us. “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],” said 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, Soderbergh took the project to an actor he knew would bring depth and honesty to the Thorson character amid the film’s eye-popping settings. “Anything Steven’s doing, I’m always up for,” said Matt Damon, who was just 42 then, 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,” shared 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.”
Behind the Candelabra featured an all-star cast like no other …
For Michael Douglas, becoming Liberace was a six-month undertaking he said was vital for him to believe he could embody the entertainment icon enough for audiences to forget it’s their favorite highbrow alpha male underneath the feathery finery. The film entailed multiple looks for both Douglas and Damon, each reflective of where the pair was in the timeline and intimacy level of their relationship. For Douglas, that entailed Liberace’s heyday sheen, his softening into a middle-aged, contented pudge (courtesy of a fat suit) and his line-free, wide-eyed, post-facelift visage.
At the time of filming it was a first for the screen-veterans career, as Matt Damon told us — courtesy of Behind the Candelabra’s over-the-top nature — he finally embraced wardrobe fittings. Fittings that had him donning everything from a bespangled, bare-cheeked thong to a periwinkle chauffeur getup with matching silver boots to a white-and-turquoise lounge set that would look equally at home on a grandma at the grocery. “I loved it,” Damon said proudly of his country-bumpkin-goes-Hollywood progression. “More than any other movie I’ve been on, actually, the wardrobe and the hair and the makeup really made a difference — and the props, all the jewelry. You just would feel different in the morning. You would walk out with all this stuff on and it was really liberating. It was really fun to put on those costumes.”
Scott Bakula is hippie cool as Liberace’s choreographer pal Bob Black, who first introduces Scott Thorson to the icon and then serves as his sounding board throughout the affair.
Dan Aykroyd is high-strung comic gold as Liberace’s longtime agent Seymour Heller, who frequently butts heads with the handsome new interloper in his client’s life.
Debbie Reynolds, a close friend of Liberace’s from their Vegas days, was as equally intent on Soderbergh and Douglas doing right by her pal as she was on acing her own startling turn as Frances Liberace, Lee’s domineering mother. “Talk about someone with a couple of lifetimes of experience and stories!” says Soderbergh. “Working with her was a treat. And I ended up having to put that credit ‘And Debbie Reynolds as Frances Liberace’ because nobody recognized her.”
Rob Lowe is a frozen-faced hoot as Dr. Jack Startz, the plastic surgeon who inadvertently launches Thorson down the path to drug-addicted destruction, when, at Liberace’s insistence, he retools Scott’s face into that of a youthful Lee. “Rob Lowe! Pretty funny!” says Soderbergh, who read Reynolds’ and Lowe’s memoirs before working with them. “And he really understood it immediately. I’m fascinated by the fact that he built this whole second career out of playing these comedic roles that no one had ever really considered him for. We had a great time.”
Where to Watch Behind the Candelabra today?