The film based on Liberace based on the book written by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson will be hitting HBO on 26 May this year. Liberace was flamboyance personified a bigger than life character who is now, via Behind the Candelabra, given a chance to be seen as a person and not just a personality.
Liberace came into the world as Władziu Valentino Liberace on May 16 1919. Great things were expected for the baby Liberace as he’d been born with a caul over his face, a sign to those who believe, of genius and an exceptional future. He also had a twin who died at childbirth.
But Behind the Candelabra tells us of the Liberace we all knew as an adult entertainer. The man who was well known for his opulence. Massive rings on every finger, elaborate costumes, that oh so feminine voice and way of saying things and the paranoia that the world would actually find out that he was gay.
In a time when it was “not okay to be gay” Liberace would sue anyone who implied or outright said that he was a same gender lover. He sued an English newspaper, the Daily Mirror, as well as the US magazine Confidential and won both cases.
What the public saw of Liberace he appeared to be flamboyance personified and despite several films made about his life, the public did not know much about the real person behind that showbusiness facade. It took Behind the Candelabra to bring some insight on the real Liberace as a person, not just the performer.
At the height of his popularity as a performer, he wallowed in material possessions that were designed to impress. His piano shaped swimming pool for instance was one of the key features of his first Hollywood dream home. A house which had the piano theme showcased throughout the house.
Already an artist whose concerts sold out, he then made the move to television as a summer replacement for the Dinah Shore Show. Liberace had learned early on to add “schmaltz” to his television show and to cater to the tastes of the mass audience by joking and chatting to the camera, as if performing in the viewer’s own living room. He also used dramatic lighting, split images, costume changes, and exaggerated hand movements to create visual interest. His television performances featured enthusiasm and humor.
This attention to the visual spectacle of his act also meant that he “dressed” the part as well, no more so than after he almost died from renal failure. After he recovered from his near death experience, he returned to Las Vegas and became “Mr Showmanship.” As his act embraced spectacle, the costumes became more exotic (ostrich feathers, mink, capes and huge rings); entrances and exits more elaborate and the inclusion of novelty acts and new performers like Barbara Streisand led Liberace to claim, “I’m a one-man Disneyland.”
The performer was on many different television shows including Saturday Night Live and he was in several films, usually as himself. He played a villain on the camp Batman and Robin television series and he even guest-starred on The Muppets.
There have been no less that six films made about Liberace and this last one could well be the definitive one. Michael Douglas stars as Liberace and Matt Damon plays Thorson, it is a story centered on the relationship the two shared and its aftermath.
The Steven Soderbergh film was shot in Santa Clarita, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs, California during the summer of 2012. Richard LaGravenese adapted a screenplay based on Thorson’s book. The film was shown as part of the entrants for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The HBO release date coincides with the final date of the festival.
The film will no doubt shed some light on his recurring poor health and his death from the AIDS virus that ultimately killed him, but it is devoutly hoped that we can see the real man. To his adoring fans this was a performer who could have invented the word Bling. A performer whose flamboyance was an integral part of his world and his act.
This flamboyance personified act was what the world knew him by. Behind the Candelabra, written in 1988, will reach more people via the medium of film and hopefully we will see the person. A man who lived, loved and died while making a statement.
By Michael Smith