May 19, 2013

HBO Liberace film goes 'Behind the Candelabra'

The chatter surrounding the project, at a time when gay rights are at the forefront of public debate, is unusually intense.

By MEREDITH BLAKE/McClatchy Newspapers

NEW YORK - When news broke in 1987 that Liberace, the famously flamboyant pianist, was dead at age 67 with what his manager had claimed was anemia brought on by a watermelon diet but was, in fact, AIDS, it made front-page headlines around the country. It was a fitting tribute for a world-famous entertainer who just a few months earlier had played three weeks of sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall.

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Director Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas appear on the set of “Behind the Candelabra,” which debuts May 26 on HBO. The film was more than 13 years in the making.

HBO/McClatchy Newspapers

A generation later, the man known as "Mr. Showmanship" is widely seen more as an avatar of kitsch than a true showbiz legend, someone whose sad death and campy image seem like relics of a less tolerant era. The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, which once welcomed 450,000 people a year, closed in 2010, no longer able to attract enough visitors to keep the lights on.

But that's about to change when "Behind the Candelabra," starring Michael Douglas as a sexually voracious Liberace and Matt Damon as his coke-addled, much-younger lover, debuts May 26 on HBO. More than 13 years in the making, the film chronicles the unconventional relationship between the men: Scott Thorson, a former foster kid who reshaped his face with plastic surgery to look more like Liberace but later filed a multimillion-dollar palimony suit against the star. The case, eventually settled for $95,000, generated unwanted publicity for someone whose popularity with millions of suburban housewives depended on a carefully maintained fa?e of heterosexuality.

The chatter surrounding "Behind the Candelabra," which arrives at a time when gay rights are at the forefront of public debate, is unusually intense. The last project that Steven Soderbergh, one of his generation's most prolific and celebrated filmmakers, directed before going into supposed retirement from moviemaking, it landed at HBO after virtually every Hollywood studio passed on the fascinating but outre material.

In a fitting professional coda for Soderbergh, the film had its red-carpet premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the same place his career took off 24 years ago when his provocative indie drama "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" won the Palme d'Or.

"I started out with a movie that's about two people in a room, for the most part, and the heart of this movie is really two people in a room, although it's a weird-looking room," Soderbergh says in his Manhattan office, a paint-splattered space strewn with brushes, half-finished canvases and piles of magazine clippings -- clutter related to his latest creative quest, learning to paint.

His self-imposed break has been anything but leisurely. He recently began writing "Glue," a second-person murder-mystery novella, via Twitter, and plans to direct a miniseries based on John Barth's epic satiric novel "The Sot-Weed Factor."

Soderbergh also delivered the "State of Cinema" talk last month at the San Francisco Film Festival. In an impassioned address, he bemoaned an industry taken over by creatively bankrupt studio executives ignorant of cinematic history.

"Cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios," he said, "and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience."

The tortuous development of "Behind the Candelabra" -- and the way the studios all scurried from the material -- surely contributed to his frustration.

THE IDEA OF MAKING a film about Liberace, whose glittery shows featuring "Reader's Digest versions" of classics by Beethoven and Chopin made him a top headliner in Las Vegas for decades, first occurred to the director on the set of "Traffic." He quickly enlisted the involvement of that film's star, Michael Douglas, but "couldn't figure out what the narrative idea was going to be" until a friend steered him toward "Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace," Thorson's 1988 tell-all. Suddenly, Soderbergh had his story.

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