For anyone born after 1980, Liberace may be a relatively arcane character—chances are even your parents weren’t big fans of the performer known as Mr. Showmanship. But for your grandparents, Liberace was a force of nature: Lady Gaga, Elton John, and Ricky Martin all rolled up into one gay, glitzy, jewel-encrusted package.
At his core, Liberace—born Władziu Valentino Liberace in 1919—was a classically trained piano player, and a gifted one at that. At seven years old, he had memorized complicated compositions, and by his teens was a regular performer at theaters, nightclubs, and on radio stations in and around his native Milwaukee. But it wasn’t until Liberace started applying his serious classical chops to pop tunes of the era that his career caught traction. By the time he was 35, Liberace was making a killing, fetching $138,000 to play a single performance at Madison Square Garden. But it was his gaudy and over the top Las Vegas performances that came to define his career. Sometimes he opened his show by walking on stage in a $300,000 white virgin fox coat lined in $100,000 worth of sequins and crystals. It had a 16-foot train and weighed over 100 pounds. Other times he made his entrance in a mini Rolls Royce. For over twenty years, Liberace was the highest paid performer in the world.
Check out some classic Liberace footage below:
Steven Soderbergh’s HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, is a portrayal of the “one-man Disneyland” (played by Michael Douglas) in the last decade of his life as seen through the eyes of Scott Thorson (played by baby-faced Matt Damon), one of Liberace’s many lovers. Thorson was 16 when he met the closeted but sexually voracious Liberace in 1977 after one of his Las Vegas shows. Though it was late in his career, Liberace’s star was still at its zenith, and like any large celestial body it had a strong gravitational pull. Seeing Thorson meet Liberace in his dressing room in one of the film’s first scenes is like watching a lamb stumble blindly into a wolf den. “You’re like a lost babe in the woods,” Liberace tells Thorson, licking his chops.
What follows is a love story—sometimes blissful, sometimes dark, but always fascinating. There’s a fracture in the couple’s relationship rooted in a fundamental difference of needs: Thorson, raised in foster homes, is looking for security. “He’s lonely,” he tells his foster mother when she raises objections to him moving in with Liberace. “I can take care of him and he can take care of me.” For Liberace, Thorson is both a “blond Adonis” and the son he never had—in one particularly unsettling episode, Liberace pays a plastic surgeon to give Thorson a new chin so that the two can resemble each other. Ultimately, though, Thorson is just another gem in Liberace’s costume, the latest in a long parade of lovers to be used and discarded when they reach their expiration date.
Behind the Candelabra is supposedly Soderbergh’s swan song, his adieu to cinema—although few observers give this threat any credence. But if it is his last film, the director of such classics as Sex, Lies and Videotape and Out of Sight would be leaving on a high note. Soderbergh is a master of extracting the best out of his actors and Behind the Candelabra is a marvelous case in point. The inspiration to cast Douglas as Liberace came during the shooting of Traffic, when Douglas offered an impromptu Liberace impersonation between takes. Given two hours of screen time, Douglas shines, offering a character that is at once generous and cruel, caring and careless. Matt Damon’s Thorson is pitch perfect, a guileless but bruised young man as earnest and blond as a golden retriever, who loses himself in the decadence of celebrity only to one day wake up on the other side of gilded gate penniless, lost, and tragically alone. The film thoroughly entertains but also manages to meditate on the fickle and sometimes ruthless nature of lust, love, and celebrity without feeling formulaic, or taking itself too seriously.
In advance of the film’s premiere, The New York Times sent reporter David Segal to track down the real Scott Thorson and found him sitting in a Reno jail, locked up for burglary and identity theft. Behind the Candelabra is an adaptation of Thorson’s memoir by the same name, which he published a year after Liberace’s death in 1987. Thorson is 54 now, and the years haven’t been kind to him—he’s been in and out of jail for theft, and struggled with drug addiction. If Liberace was a force of nature, then Thorson is his ultimate disaster victim, still picking up the pieces 30 years later.
Behind the Candelabra premieres this Sunday on HBO.