Question: What Hollywood studio rejected the chance to finance a movie featuring screen legend Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist Liberace? And as an added attraction, the package included Matt Damon playing his lover.
Answer: Every major dream factory.
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) explains: “I pitched it to every studio boss in Hollywood and they all showed me the door,” he recalled. “They said the story was just too gay.”
A strange reaction, considering that being gay is no longer a big deal in Hollywood. And that’s why Soderbergh and his two stars dished up the lively story of the famous pianist and his bittersweet relationship with his boy toy lover on cable giant HBO. Behind the Candelabra is due to air on Sunday, May 26.
While Douglas might not be the first actor that springs to mind as the one to slide on Liberace’s elaborate slippers, Soderbergh points out that 13 years ago, when he was shooting Traffic with Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, he suggested the actor might consider playing Liberace. “You’ve got to be kidding?” Soderbergh says Douglas declared. “And then he did a fantastic impersonation of Liberace.”
“Jerry Weintraub [producer] viewed this project as La Cage Aux Folles on steroids,” laughed Soderbergh. Early clips at this year’s Television Critics Association (TCA) presentation in Pasadena revealed a bit of a shocker: Douglas and Damon shirtless and kissing passionately, which even in today’s anything-goes Hollywood, still seems a little odd.
Before Elvis, Elton John, Madonna and well before Lady Gaga, Liberace dominated stage and TV as a wildly dressed pianist who performed in front of giant candelabra. He was a dazzling showman as well as an impressive musician. At one time, he was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. And to match that personality, he also lived extravagantly. While most insiders knew he was gay, he kept it secret, as he did his five-year love affair with the much younger Scott Thorson, who met the entertainer in 1976 when he was just 17. Thorson, who wrote a book upon which the movie is based, had an acrimonious split from the entertainer when their romance fizzled. And while the story is a serious one, some thought it was a bit over the top, with Douglas bedecked in an assortment of lavish bouffant wigs, definitely sinking his teeth into the role.
At the TCA session, Douglas, who turns 69 this year and has been battling throat cancer, looked thinner than usual, but nattily dressed in an open-necked gray silk shirt over tan slacks. He called the movie “A great love story. They had a great love for each other.”
Douglas said he had fun with the role. “Characters are normally a little easier to play than people who might be closer to yourself. It’s sort of a license of freedom,” he said, adding that it was one of the hairiest roles of his career, referring not so much to the challenge of the performance as to all the hairpieces he had to wear.
So how did he find his way to the part amid Liberace’s wild matching coats and fur capes? “There’s a tremendous amount of clips and film [footage] that certainly gives you a sense of Liberace,” he said. “Basically, it’s a repetition process of looking at a lot of stuff and finding that balance and knowing you’re not an impersonator. You’re not going to ever be exactly like Liberace, and so you try to find the balance that makes you comfortable, makes Steven [Soderbergh] secure and makes myself attractive to Matt.”
Behind the Candalabra will debut on Sunday, May 26, on HBO.