HBO’s Liberace film aims to humanize through love story

Michael Douglas stars as Liberace in the HBO film "Beyond the Candelabra."

Michael Douglas takes on larger-than-life entertainer Liberace as he plays the singer in an HBO film about a secret love affair in the 1970s that Douglas on Friday called “a great love story.”

Director Steven Soderbergh said he chose to tell Liberace’s story through the lens of his romance with Scott Thorson – a young man who walked into the singer’s Las Vegas dressing room in the summer of 1977 – in part to expand public perception beyond his outsized personality and lavish lifestyle.

“I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of their characters or the relationship,” Soderbergh told reporters at a meeting of the Television Critics Association.

“The discussions they’re having are discussions every couple has. We take the relationship very seriously,” he said.

The film called “Beyond the Candelabra” debuts this spring on Time Warner Inc-owned HBO. It is based on Thorson’s book of the same name about their relationship, which ended in a bitter breakup. Matt Damon plays Thorson.

The idea for the film was budding 12 years ago, when Soderbergh and the “Wall Street” actor were working on the 2000 movie “Traffic.” Soderbergh randomly asked Douglas if he had ever thought of playing Liberace.

Douglas said he thought “is this guy messing with me?,” but launched into an impersonation that stuck with Soderbergh years later when he began envisioning the Liberace film.

The movie depicts “a great love story,” Douglas said.

“This is a couple that felt for each other. There’s a lot of joyful moments; there is humor to it,” until their emotional split, he said.

Liberace tried to keep his relationship with Thorson from the public. When Thorson sued Liberace for palimony after their breakup, the entertainer denied that he was gay or that the two had been lovers.

“It’s unfortunate to see the movie through a contemporary lens and know they were not allowed to be as open back then as people are today,” Soderbergh said.

Liberace died in 1987 at age 67.

The filmmakers used locations and props directly from Liberace’s life. Scenes were filmed at the musician’s Los Angeles penthouse and on the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton where Liberace performed. The filmmakers also reunited his trademark, matching “Dueling Pianos.”

The movie’s costume designers worked to recreate his elaborate costumes. In one of the star’s dramatic entrances, the real-life Liberace wore a $300,000 white virgin fox coat, lined with $100,000 worth of Austrian crystals, that weighed 100 lbs (45 kg). In the film, Douglas wears a replica made of fake fur that weighs much less.

Damon also got to wear his share of flashy outfits. While he said he normally doesn’t pay too much attention to wardrobe fittings, he said he embraced the glamorous costumes in the Liberace film.

“I probably spent more time in wardrobe fittings in this thing than I have in the previous 15 projects,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”


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