Richard LaGravenese / Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra © s_bukley / Home Box Office (HBO)
Władziu Valentino Liberace — known to the world by just his last name — became the highest paid musician in the world from the 1950s to 1970s. From his affinity for sequin suits to his flamboyant stage persona and trademark candelabra placed atop whatever piano he played, you can understand why he was nicknamed “Mr. Showmanship.” Liberace’s death in 1987 due to complications from AIDS confirmed for many what was considered to be one of the most well-known secrets in entertainment: Liberace was gay. A year after his death, Scott Thorson, Liberace’s former lover /live-in companion / driver (who was only eighteen when he met the then fifty-seven-year-old performer) published a book, Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, detailing their five year relationship, which ended on bad terms and resulted in Thorson filing a palimony lawsuit against his former partner. On May 26th, HBO will debut Steven Soderbergh’s movie adaptation of the infamous tell-all memoir, which stars Matt Damon as Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace.
Word & Film recently had a chance to talk with Richard LaGravenese, the screenwriter of “Behind the Candelabra,” about what drew him to the project, Liberace’s legacy, and why audiences in Europe are seeing the film in theaters while Americans can only watch it on HBO.
Word & Film: How did you become involved in the project?
Richard LaGravenese: Well, I’ve known Steven [Soderbergh] as a friend since “Out of Sight” and we worked together on “Erin Brockovich.” And in 2008, he sent me an email saying, “I’ve got this Liberace biography. Would you be interested? I’m not kidding.” It was just like those three lines, which is usual for Steven’s emails. And I laughed and said, “Sure, let me read it.” I read it in about a day and I said, “I’m dying to do this!” Number one to work with Steven, two because I loved the world, the characters, and the story.
W&F: Were you a fan of Liberace? Is that what drew you to the project?
RL: No. I mean, I grew up seeing him all the time on the variety shows and guest appearances on, you know, “The Dean Martin Show” and “Ed Sullivan” and his specials. Things like that. He was one of the entertainers I grew up with, as a child, seeing all the time. It wasn’t that [that made the project appealing], as much as the story and the world. I know that world, the late ’70s to mid-80s very well and I understood it. And between those two things, I thought it was a very unusual love story that hadn’t been told before.
W&F: So you wrote the screenplay with the intention of focusing on the relationship?
RL: What’s very important about this story and what I … made sure was the core of it is that I believe [Liberace] loved Scott and Scott loved him … that this wasn’t just another lover he had in a string of lovers. This was, for him, a very important, very real relationship. At its center, there was real love there. Otherwise the story would just be parody and camp and you’d feel no emotional investment in the characters.
W&F: But when you look at the broad strokes, a richer, older man and much younger male from a humble background that he hires / takes in / lavishes with gifts so shortly after meeting, it seems more like two people using each other than a relationship.
RL: Well, in the beginning it was. I believe in the beginning, of course. To be honest, just like in the book … [Scott] wasn’t attracted to [Liberace]. He was a middle-aged man. He wasn’t sexually attracted to him. Scott was a young handsome guy and on [Liberace]’s part, [Scott] was a young stud he was attracted to. So in the beginning, they both had their agendas. But I do believe as time went on, they became intimate and it became real.
W&F: It’s kind of interesting that Liberace worked so hard to keep his homosexuality a secret, yet now he’s a kind of a gay icon.
RL: The interesting thing about him to me is that here was a man who was so closeted and so hidden, yet on stage … he was completely out of the closet. You see his acts and there’s no doubt that the man is flagrantly gay, and yet, it’s amazing to me, the audience only saw what they wanted to see. They loved him for who he was on stage, which was very openly gay, in a way.
W&F: It seems most people of a certain age know nothing of Liberace’s musical legacy. Do you have any hope that the film might get them looking him up on Wikipedia and searching out videos of his act on YouTube?
RL: It would be nice if they did … I mean he influenced Cher, he influenced Elvis, right up to Lady Gaga. His showmanship really set the ground for people that came after and he was really supportive of young talent. And the thing with Liberace, as opposed to this generation, is he didn’t do his own songs. He was an entertainer. He was a showman. And he was an extraordinary pianist. But he had this concert pianist ability along with this salon piano player showmanship. He really loved people and he loved entertaining people, so he would mix those two things together. And then he would add all these sequins.
W&F: There’d been talk about this movie for years. Why did it take so long to get made?
RL: I wrote this in June / July of 2008 and Matt [Damon] and Michael [Douglas] were committed for four years, through thick and thin. They were public about it, even when the money wasn’t there. Just “We’re going to do this. We’re going to do this.” They never wavered, which was … amazing. And then, thank God for HBO, because I swear if it wasn’t for them …this would never get American domestic distribution … Every studio turned it down. All financiers turned it down. And that’s just another sign of where the movie business /culture is at right now. That it’s being released as a film in Europe, but in America it’s on HBO.
W&F: One of the things that’s striking about the film is that there is this sort of current events aspect in regards to gay marriage. Do you think audiences will pick up on that?
RL: It’s important to put things in historical perspective and where we are now with gay marriage, it’s important to see how just a short period ago, just thirty odd years ago, this wasn’t even a conceivable notion and here was a couple that for all intents and purposes were married and look what happened. Scott had no rights. He was just sort of kicked out of the house with his belonging in a garbage bag because of the world we lived in at that time. To me, it’s a timely story to show where we’ve come as things are progressing.