HBO Movie Preview: Before Elton John and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace

SAN DIEGO, May 24, 2013 — Without Liberace, there would likely be no Elton John, no Lady Gaga. Not as we know them today. Perhaps no Freddie Mercury or David Bowie, glam rock or even men with eyeliner. We are talking to you, Adam Lambert.

Liberace’s tremendous musical talent allowed him to play up his flamboyant personality in a way that wouldn’t have been accepted by mainstream America before the days of rainbow flags and gay pride. Make no mistake, Liberace kept the majority of his life firmly behind the closet door. In the days before TMZ and Twitter, it was entirely possible.

Today, 25 years after his death, the closet door is open and the world is ready for HBO’s biography, “Liberace: Behind Closed Doors,” airing on Sunday night, May 26 at 9 p.m. ET.

The film is based on the tell-all book with the same title, written by Liberace’s long-time lover and partner, Scott Thorson in 1988, a year after his death from AIDS.  

Thorson, the former dog-walker half Liberace’s age who became his paramour, filed a $113 million palimony suit against Liberace in 1982, a shocking development at this time as it was the first same-sex palimony case every filed. Thorson received a $95,000 settlement five years later.

Many gay actors, musicians, singers and other entertainers today remain quiet about their sexual orientation. Others make it known but do not consider it anyone’s business. In Liberace’s era, to be openly gay was to offend the norms of middle America and find yourself blacklisted from ever becoming a mainstream performer. So Liberace created an eccentric, confirmed bachelor personality he could sell to middle America, and they could live with while enjoying his immense talent for entertaining the masses.

Liberace created a public persona middle America could accept in the 1970s and 1980s, and lived his real life Behind The Candelabra. Photo: HBO.

Meanwhile, Liberace engaged an army of people to conceal his lifestyle. In the era before hoards of paparazzi stalked celebrities and the Internet did not exist, it was possible to construct a façade and hide behind it. Liberace did this all his life.

It is this backstage life that HBO’s movie depicts. It is a project conceived and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of “Traffic” and other acclaimed theatrical films including, “Sex Lies and Videotape,” “Erin Brockovich,” and “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Soderburgh ended up going to HBO with his project instead of producing a theatrical film after every studio in Hollywood told him it was “too gay.”

Soderbergh worked with actor Michael Douglas on “Traffic” in 2000. Douglas says in an interview with HBO Soderburgh reportedly asked him at the time if he would ever like to play Liberace. “And I look at him and think: is he messing with me? I’m supposed to be the drug czar in “Trafffic,” and I said: “Well, it hasn’t ever crossed my mind.” So that’s how long ago Steven had been thinking about the project.” Douglas says he was sold on the script and the great team working on the film.

It turned out to be a comeback role for Douglas. It is the first since his recovery from treatment for stage 4 throat cancer in 2010.

The pivotal role of Thorson is played by actor Matt Damon. Douglas said it was a much bigger risk for Damon at age 42 than for him at age 68 and nearing the end of his career. He says both of them saw the movie as a simple love story between two people, and approached it that way. “What I’m most proud of is that you forget about Matt and me pretty quickly,  because the story sucks you in so much that you forget it’s about two guys, and you’re just watching a story about a relationship between two people who really love each other.”

The movie focuses on the ten year time span covering Liberace and Thorson’s relationship. Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Dan Ackroyd, and Scott Bakula are part of a talented supporting cast.

Douglas perfects Liberace’s nasally voice and ever present smile; Douglas says it was fun playing a character who smiles a lot, as opposed to many of his famous roles. Given his recent brush with mortality, Liberace’s death scene in this film as he wastes away from AIDS is especially haunting.

Damon is a little old to play the 20-something Thorson, but he manages to pull it off, even in the many scenes where Damon bares nearly all. Exceptional costuming and makeup make the rest happen. Expect some Emmy nominations for the talented  artistic team.

Reviewers have universally praised the film. It’s sure to be a Memorial Day guilty pleasure for some, an outright delight for many. Whatever camp you fall into, join us at Communities for a Live Chat as we watch and enjoy “Behind the Candelbra” together on Sunday, May 26, at 9 p.m. ET. Feel free to wear your sequins, bling rings and furs (faux or vintage only please, we’re animal lovers).

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities at” when quoting from or linking to this story.   

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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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