News Column

Tumultuous relationship revealed [New Haven Register (CT)]

May 26, 2013


By Candace Havens

FYI Television Inc.

Whatever the controversy may be surrounding the new film "Behind the Candelabra," premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO, there is no doubt that actors Michael Douglas (Liberace) and Matt Damon (Scott Thorson) went for it when it came to absorbing their roles. The actors did a great deal of work when it came to preparing for the film. And it was an equally difficult process for director Steven Soderbergh to get the movie made.

It was almost 12 years ago, while working on the film "Traffic," that Soderbergh first asked Douglas if he'd ever thought about playing the flamboyant pianist Liberace. "I looked at him, and I thought, 'Is this guy messing with me?' That's how early I think the idea was going on, and then we had to find the screenplay," Douglas says. "But Matt and I just had a great chance. I just want to commend Matt, because I don't think I would have had the courage at that point in my career to take this on. And we had a great screenplay, well-produced, great director and a great experience, a really nice experience."

"I don't know why that popped into my head, but I remember the day it did," says Soderbergh. "And you (he points to Douglas) immediately launched into an impromptu impression of him that was excellent. And so I had it in the back of my mind and for years was thinking about it, but I couldn't figure out a way in. I didn't want to do a sort of traditional biopic, and I didn't know what the angle was."

That angle turned out to be the years the entertainer spent with his companion Scott Thorson. Liberace was known for living lavishly and big. When they first met, Thorson was his polar opposite, but Liberace did his best to mold the other man into his ideal.

Researching the roles was paramount for the actors. "There's a tremendous amount of clips and films that give you a sense, an idea, and there's a lot of repetition involved," Douglas says of watching endless hours of Liberace in action. "But it's basically a repetitive process of looking at a lot of stuff and finding that balance between knowing you're not an impersonator. You're not going to ever be exactly like Liberace and trying to find the balance that makes you comfortable, makes Steven secure, and makes myself attractive to Matt," he laughs.

The film pushed Douglas and Damon out of their comfort zones, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "Richard (LaGravenese, screenwriter) so got this dynamic," says Damon of the relationship between Liberace and Thorson. "Whether this was the actual dynamic or not, I completely believed what he'd written and those aspects of the power dynamic. What I felt like was if this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you'd feel at moments like this is too intimate, maybe I shouldn't be here. But it's between a man and a man, and I've never seen that movie before.

"And so it was fun, but we weren't giggling about it," continues Damon. "We took it very seriously. These were people's lives, and we wanted to get it right. We had the best director possible, and we just worked really hard on it and were extremely happy to do it because we know how rare something like this is."

One thing the film does make clear is that personal trials aside, Liberace was a very talented pianist. "I think it's well known in the industry that he was one of the great pianists of our time or of any time," says executive producer Jerry Weintraub. "But he became a great showman. And as Len Amato from HBO says, he was before Lady Gaga and Madonna and Elton John. He did these outlandish costumes and came on the stage and entertained people. And so I think his piano playing became secondary to his audience, not to him necessarily. I don't know if it did or didn't to him.

"But to his audience, certainly they were enamored with his great show that they saw, this spectacle. He presented a spectacle every night. And I think that's why he's such a fascinating character. And Michael really put it over the top with this because he captured it. Steven, who is the best director in the world, directed it magnificently. I'm sure Liberace would have loved to have had him there. And Matt did an incredible Scott Thorson. And LaGravenese gave us a great script. And HBO had the guts to go ahead and do this film."

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