Walter Lee Liberace (1919-1987) was once the highest paid entertainer in show business. His uniquely flamboyant act appealed primarily to heterosexual women.
The press dubbed him Mr. Showmanship. In his act he would enter the stage in a chauffeured limousine. Swaffed in furs, glitter and jewels, the manicured Liberace would sit at an equally glittering piano and perform what he called a mix of "pop with a bit of the classics" or "classical with the boring parts cut out."
During the mid 1950s, he commanded a salary of $50,000 per week in Las Vegas. At this same time he was paid $138,000 for a one night gig at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He made millions more on television.
His hand gestures were grand. Whether they glided across the keyboard, or when he turned to address his audience, Liberace's hands were like the wings on a bird. The public had never seen anyone quite like Liberace.
He took his persona to the ultimate degree. At the end of his performances, audience members were invited up to the stage to caress his clothing, shake his hands, and even kiss him.
Looking at clips of the entertainer today, it's hard to believe that his fan base had no idea they were applauding an effeminate gay man. It was a different world then. People didn't talk about "such things" in those days.
There were scandals. He was "accused" of being gay on several occasions, sometimes by young men who claimed he tried to seduce them. In each instance, the entertainer filed suit, and the accusations were dropped.
The truth came out during the final years of Liberace's life. Scott Thorson, his longtime boyfriend, sued for palimony and published a tell-all book. The much younger Thorson could not be threatened or bought off. He refused to remain silent. He had dedicated years of his life to Liberace and was furious at how callously he had been discarded.
But as Liberace lay dying of AIDS in 1987, the two met one final time, and parted friends.
On May 26 at 9 p.m., HBO will debut Behind the Candelabra, a biographical drama based on Thorson's book. Directed by the acclaimed Steven Soderbergh, the film stars Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson. The project reportedly found it's way to HBO after major studios deemed in "too gay." HBO's publicity machine in fact promises to reveal the truth — the whole truth — about a life that Liberace worked so hard to hide from the public.
Screenwriter Richard La Gravenese (The Fisher King, The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Bridges of Madison ) chatted with SFGN about his process in telling Liberace's life story.
LaGravenese: “I downloaded a lot of his music. I watched whatever documentary or television footage I could find. But my primary source was the Scott Thorson book, which includes a great deal of Liberace's biography. Not long before we started shooting, Soderbergh got a hold of the transcripts from the palimony suit and we included those scenes verbatim.”
SFGN: What did you find to be the most fascinating aspects of Liberace's personality?
LaGravenese: He had a very strong sexual drive that conflicted with his strong, monogamous DNA. He didn't enjoy a very active social life. He was labeled the hardest working man in show business, and given his act, you don't doubt it. So at the end of the day, he wanted nothing more than to be at home with the one man he loved, to cook and take care of him in a very traditional way. But the times were the times. Sexuality had become more public, much more accessible. For a man who had spent his life hiding his sexuality, I imagine the seventies were something of a revelation to him.
Were you in contact with any of Liberace's family or friends as part of your research?
LaGravenese: Yes, Ray Arnett, the man who directed all of Lee's shows for over 20 years. He confirmed what many others had said, including Thorson, that Lee was a big hearted, generous, loving man. Of course he was also a star who had built his career from the ground up, coming from nothing, so he had a star's sense of entitlement. He was absolutely devoted to his audiences.
Did you encounter any restrictions from HBO regarding the film's overtly gay content?
LaGravenese: Not at all. When I wrote the scene of their lovemaking while Lee does poppers, I didn't think it would get shot. But I wrote it and it did.
What was your process in deciding which events in Liberace's relationship with Thorson were the best in painting an accurate portrait of who they were as a couple?
LaGravenese: What is important to understand, and the reason I was drawn to the story, is that these two men genuinely loved each other. Perhaps at first there were more hidden agendas, but after awhile, I truly believe these two men loved each other. And that had to be at the core of the story or else it's not real. Otherwise it becomes some camp parody of a relationship. I believe they had a real marriage in every sense but legal.
What is your impression of Douglas and Damon in the roles?
LaGravenese: I'm very proud of their performances. I think they're extraordinary. They found the love and the reality between these two men so that the story is moving, funny and painful because it's played honestly.
Look for Behind The Candelabra at 9 p.m. on May 26. For information on future airings, please visit hbo.com/movies/behind-the-candelabra/index.htmlDavid-Elijah Nahmod