May 22, 2013

Steven Soderbergh's Newest Movie Depicts The Late Pianist Liberace

Director Steven Soderbergh — who broke big onto the filmmaking scene in 1989 at age 26, with the smash "Sex, Lies, and Videotape", is the news this week, for a film that the big Hollywood studios were unwilling to touch, because, in the words of The Atlantic, it was simply "too gay" (see  That film is "Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace".

Really, after TV shows like "Will & Grace" and "Glee", and stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris out and about, and movies like "Brokeback Mountain" already broke the last taboos about homosexuality a decade ago, but Hollywood still wouldn't touch this?

Indeed, the last few remaining cultural taboos, including pornography (see my post at for details) have already been covered in movies, so I'm not convinced that's the main reason.  The final cost of the movie was $23 million.

But Mr. Soderbergh first started shopping the idea for the film around back in 2006, when George W. Bush was still President and still helping to fuel the culture wars.  Mr. Soderbergh convinced actor Michael Douglas to play the lead role (who, as it turns out, met Liberace several times as they both had homes in Palm Springs, California), with Matt Damon playing his much younger boyfriend.  Actress Debbie Reynolds, who also knew Liberace personally since they both played together in Las Vegas at the same time) was cast as Liberace's mother.  Rob Lowe is also in the movie.  The cast is impressive!

Liberace: King (or is it Queen?) of Kitsch

Born in Wisconsin of Polish and Italian ancestry, the late pianist (Wladziu [Walter] Valentino) Liberace was one of the last from an era where homosexuality was expected to be kept in the closet, even in Hollywood.  Gays certainly existed back in those days, but in order to work in the entertainment business, gays could not openly discuss their private relationships for fear of never working again.  Gossip columnists called them "confirmed bachelors" or gave them a similar euphemism back in those days.  The flamboyant pianist followed the Hollywood rules of the day, and even managed to land his own television show for a time called "The Liberace Show" back in the 1950s and 1960s.

But in those days, as the film (and book) "The Celluloid Closet" documented, the movie industry's own production code as well as various groups such as the Legion of Decency, all but forced anyone working in the entertainment business to remain in the closet if they were homosexual.  Actors and actresses such as Nancy Jane Kulp who played Jane Hathaway on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and Mary Grace Canfield (who played Ralph Monroe) on "Green Acres" fit the gay stereotype, but were never acknowledged as such.

Liberace was a product of that environment, although his sexuality was hardly a well-kept secret.  The man was known for his flamboyant costumes, garish jewelry, feathered capes, and of course, the candelabra which sat on his piano, so its not like he did a great job of keeping it secret.  Indeed, Mr. Soderbergh said:

"You could make an argument that Liberace really invented the idea of 'bling,'" he says. "I mean, nobody was dressing themselves like this. When you look at the people that have followed him — whether it's Elvis or Elton John or Cher or Madonna or Lady Gaga — you know, all these people are sort of building on something that he began."

Of course, social unrest started to change that paradigm by the late 1960s when protests over police harassment of people who patronized gay establishments (mostly bars) erupted into the streets of Philadelphia and New York.  That sowed the seeds for societal change, but it didn't happen overnight, and as my post on the porn industry (see noted, religious conservatives backed President Nixon to crack down on the liberal hippies and their free-thinking ways.

As a point of reference, even back in 1980, comedienne Joan Rivers (catch my post on her at would openly make fun of Liberace's closeted persona in her stand-up act (it's on her album "What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most"), saying how she borrowed her outfit from Liberace and adding "Liberace is gay, he would have been here tonight, but he had a yeast infection ..."  However, with Ms. Rivers' acknowledgement, there was at least was a discussion of the issue, and when the AIDS crisis hit a few years later, the nation was really forced to finally start acknowledging the fact that gays even existed.

Life Behind the Candelabra and In the Closet

"Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace" was derived Scott Thorson's own written memoir about his tumultuous six-year relationship with Liberace.  Thorson was 40 years younger than Liberace and still in his teens when they met back in 1977.  In 1983, Mr. Thorson sued Liberace for palimony.  Mr. Thorson was on Liberace's payroll, he dressed Scott Thorson up like himself, and paid for Thorson to get plastic surgery.  The palimony case was eventually settled out-of-court for just under $100,000.

The movie version of "Behind the Candelabra" is already getting some serious nods from film critics at the Cannes Film Festival.  The subject, is of course, the late pianist Liberace who died from complications of AIDS at age 67 back in 1987.  The movie, as I already mentioned, is "Behind the Candelabra" which stars Michael Douglas as the late pianist and Matt Damon as his boy-toy Scott Thorson.

Premiering On Cable

Now this movie will finally premier in the U.S. on May 26, 2013, and where else will that be happening? On cable, more specifically on HBO.

The filmmaker acknowledged that the subject matter wasn't an easy sell to Hollywood.  In an interview for NPR's "Fresh Air" program that one of Soderbergh's producers, Jerry Weintraub, was working with HBO at the time and mentioned the project to executives there.  It was exactly the kind of film the company wanted to be making — and the deal "was done immediately."  Soderbergh says this is his last movie (if you believe him).  Have a listen to that program below, or by visiting

While the relationship between Liberace and Thorson may be the engine of the film, the same-sex nature of that relationship is not the point, regardless of the two actors locking lips—and horns—in fact-based gay romance.  Mr. Soderbergh told NPR:

"It's a very intimate movie.  It's a very emotionally intimate movie, and there are scenes between them that are almost uncomfortable in their intimacy. [But they] would be if it was a man and a woman involved. ... I always felt that if we did our jobs correctly, that halfway through the movie you'd forget that it was Michael and Matt and just feel as though you're watching a relationship."

In the end, this new movie is getting attention for Soderbergh's unique filmmaking style, and the actors' portrayals of their characters' roles.  The Atlantic described Mr. Soderbergh's filmmaking style as follows:

"Soderbergh, with his typically seamless camerawork, punchy editing, and pleasure in recreating kitschy 1970s and '80s clothes and décor without ever veering into kitsch himself, frames the material as a sort of same-sex Sunset Boulevard: Douglas plays the vampiric Norma Desmond role to Damon's more vulnerable version of William Holden's Joe Gillis."

NPR's Fresh Air program provided a quick overview of "Behind the Candelabra" which you can listen to below, or by visiting:

You can catch the official trailer for "Behind the Candelabra" below, or by visiting:

HBO also has a YouTube clip called "The Making of Behind The Candelabra" which can be viewed below, or by visiting: 

The BBC had a nice segment on the movie including interviews with both Mr. Douglas and Mr. Damon, and closed by noting that what was done in this case (e.g. going to HBO rather than a traditional movie outlet) might just represent the future of filmmaking.  Catch that informative clip at

Author P.S., May 30, 2013:  Wisconsin Public Radio had a story entitled "Liberace: An American Boy" at which talked about the life of Liberace, who was a Milwaukee-born pianist that had some interesting perspective on him and how his secret gay life and relationship with personal assistant Scott Thorson had not exactly endeared the late pianist to the gay community, yet he was very much a product of the era in which he grew up.

Beyond that, NPR had two relevant stories about Liberace from an earlier time.  One was on the closure of Liberace museum in Las Vegas in 2010 (see  Before its closing, the museum suffered from declining visitors and struggled with a mortgage payment for the museum.  The decline in visitors was due (in part) to its location way off the Las Vegas strip, although in early 2013, there was news that a scaled-back version of museum about half the size of the original tentatively being called the Liberace Experience (Las Vegas Weekly notes, see, although the name is likely to change to something more suited to acronym treatment, as plans for the new museum venue take shape) will re-open in downtown Las Vegas in January 2014.  The NPR story on the museum's 2010 closure noted that Liberace was really best known for playing songs written by other artists rather than for any original work, which may have resulted in his fading from the public consciousness after his death.  Thanks to the HBO movie, there is renewed interest in (and hope) that people might wish to visit a new museum about the late pianist.

The other story was about a cookbook released in 2007 entitled "Liberace: Retro Recipes from America's Kitschiest Kitchen" (listen/see the story at which featured recipes from the late pianist.  The recipes in the book were from Liberace's personal files the authors noted in a telephone interview, although the recipe titles and the added "bling" of glitzy presentation in styled photographs were contemporary spins.  Some of his recipes were considered fairly routine back in the day, such as Braised Ox Tail, which is something hardly anyone would prepare today, yet that wasn't considered unusual back in the 1950s, which was why the authors dubbed the book "retro kitsch".  The authors drew heavily on the Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 (although it was a reorganization rather than a liquidation).  The foundation operated the former museum, and archived pieces from the museum were used in the production of the 2013 movie "Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace" (costume designer Ellen Mirojnick admitted that many of Liberace's costumes had to be recreated not only to fit actor Michael Douglas, but also because they were simply too heavy to wear in filming.  For example, she noted that Liberace's "King Neptune" costume reportedly weighed over 200 lbs., and just imagine that the late pianist actually wore those costumes in performances!).

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