Before Elton John, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga and their epic stage and personal antics, there was Liberace, aka Mr. Showmanship, the original too-much celebrity, marinated in his own eccentricities.

Sunday, May 26 HBO premiers Behind the Candelabra (so titled because of Liberace’s trademark candelabra that he kept on his piano during shows), a film by Steven Soderbergh of Scott Thorson’s notorious, just re-released tell-all about his life as lover and plaything of the world famous pianist. The film, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson, took almost half a decade to produce but looks well worth the wait. The book is so filled with weird, jaw-dropping revelations about the over-the-top celebrity lifestyle Thorson shared with Liberace (matching fur capes and gold plated Rolls Royces to start… have I piqued your interest?) it’s almost not to be believed. Thankfully, our celebrity culture has evolved since the death of Liberace in 1987 to the point where we’ll believe just about anything (thank you, TMZ). Thorson met Liberace when he was 17 and was quickly brought into the 47 year-old entertainer’s entourage and personal life. Thorson quotes Liberace as saying he wanted to be “Father, brother and lover” to the younger man… guess which one took precedent? Here are some of the things we’re most looking forward to Sunday night when Soderbergh’s film premiers.

1. Matt Damon in a Speedo

The books details quite a lot of Thorson and Liberace’s sexual relationship; a more accurate title might actually be Beneath the Candelabra if you get my hint. The preview includes a few shots of Matt Damon, towheaded like we haven’t seen him since Good Will Hunting, getting out of one of Liberace’s Roman-bath-by-way-of-Palm-Springs pools in a very tiny speedo. So, clearly, let’s get more of that and I predict Emmy!

2. Debbie, Dearest

Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain and mother of Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher) was a friend of Liberace’s in real life (they shared an agent for their Vegas engagements) and now plays his domineering, religious mother Frances in the film. The icon of old show business razzle dazzle is dramatically unrecognizable in the role sporting a frumpy gray wig, glasses and not a sequin in sight (we assume all sequins in North America were diverted to Douglas’s wardrobe). If Reynold’s role is anything like Mama Liberace is portrayed in the book the 81 year-old glamour girl has a great Faye Dunaway opportunity to chew scenery. As Thorson says of Mrs. Liberace: “when she died, Lee (Liberace) didn’t shed a single tear but went to pieces a few months later at the death of one of his many poodles.” Don’t even bother chewing, Debbie: just swallow the scenery whole.

3. Speaking of Sequins

No movie about Liberace would be complete without recreations of some of those famously understated costumes from his stage wardrobe (see also his collection of hairpieces). Beads, ruffles, feathers, velvet, satin, sequins, furs, jewels: the man made Cher look like a Shinto nun by comparison. Also, apparently the rule for men wearing capes is as follows: capes are only allowable if you are a superhero or a world famous concert pianist. Here’s the best part of the Liberace wardrobe: in a head-to-toe white satin and ermine ensemble bedecked with more mirrors than the a NASA telescope, the man insisted on publicly playing it straight until the day he died from AIDS complications. I fear that for an entire generation of women over 80 this movie will be a rude awakening about the private life of a man they may still be holding torches for.

4. Making an Entrance

Liberace was just as famous for his elaborate entrances (like the one above where he’s driven onstage by the real Scott Thorson in a rhinestone studded Rolls Royce) as he was for his befurred and bejeweled wardrobe. Also, we hear he played the piano! We’ve never exactly been sure what all this has to do with Chopin and Beethoven but we’re excited to find out!

5. Michael Douglas As We’ve Never Seen Him Before

The Academy Award winning actor hasn’t had a role this good in years (thanks for trying, team behind Wall Street sequel but no thanks) and has never played so far against type. Over-the-top antics aside, Liberace was an enormously talented musician and captivating personality and we’re looking forward to seeing how Douglass channels his own brand of charisma into the role. We’re also seriously hoping his wife, fellow Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta Jones, gave him some pointers on just how to do that diva strut across the stage to his piano bench.

6. The Soundtrack

Like I said, somewhere in all of this is the story of a gifted musician. For proof of the talent behind the tacky, listen to Liberace playing the “14th Hungarian Rhapsody” by Liszt; he never would have had the opportunity to get that tacky if he hadn’t been that talented.

7. Rob Lowe Unable to Blink

Behind-the-Candelabra-Rob-Lowe-03-jpg_152817
HBO/Behind the Candelabra screen grab of Rob Lowe

The very handsome Rob Lowe underwent migraine inducing makeup (lots of pulling and scotch tape, we imagine) for his role as plastic surgeon to the stars, Dr. Jack Startz. Seriously, take a look, that’s Rob Lowe in there. Startz plays an important role in the book and we hope to see a lot of him in the film version. Well, maybe not see… don’t look directly at him, children. Startz allegedly told a young Thorson that cocaine was not addictive and allowed him to trade expensive pieces of jewelry for painkillers. And you thought your prescription drug plan was bad.

8. The Couple that Facelifts Together…

Well, in the case of Liberace and Thorson they do not actually stay together. Apparently, the relationship went sour around the time Thorson underwent some surgery by Dr. Startz at Liberace’s insistence that was supposed to make Thorson more closely resemble a young Liberace. I’m just going to repeat that so it can sink in: Liberace made his lover get plastic surgery on his face so he would look like him. I know, it doesn’t get any less weird the more you say it. Terrible to live through (I can only imagine) but fabulous to read about and hopefully see on screen! How fame and wealth corrupt and pervert even the gentlest of souls; and how the scorned heart seeks vengance, especially when the scorned is half of a celebrity coupling. Let’s just hope that Soderbergh’s film takes us on as wild a ride as its source material. I’ve got my sequined cape all ready for Sunday night!

Behind the Candelabra premiers Sunday, May 26 on HBO

Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson is available through Tantor Media online and in stores now

 

Author

Tony Bravo

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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