Behind The Candelabra: What’s Behind The Curtain Behind The Candelabra

by Barbie on June 3, 2013

 

Matt Damon as Scott Thorson & Michael Douglas as Liberace copyright Claudette Barius/ HBO Matt Damon as Scott Thorson & Michael Douglas as Liberace
© Claudette Barius/ HBO

 

Many motivational speakers have said the secret to finding happiness is to keep one’s expectations low.

Le Movie Snob should have borne this in mind when months of high hopes culminated with the airing of Behind The Candelabra on HBO during Memorial Day weekend.  I was SO excited about this movie, which was apparent from the many articles posted on Le Movie Snob’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/lemoviesnob (SVP, like, merci).

The very beginning of the movie promises just what I was hoping for:  it opens with the 1970s HBO logo (which I remember because my grandparents on the east coast had HBO before the midwest had an inkling of what cable TV was), with a disco beat.  

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is strutting to the beat as he enters a Las Vegas casino, his feathered hair in sync with the music.  His companion Bob (an unrecognizable Scott Bakula) matches Scott’s strut with a perfect 70s shag haircut and porn-stache.

As Bruce Sandy said in his review for Vanity Fair, this scene had him “smiling at the sheer rightness.”  To our shared sadness, we couldn’t have realized this scene, not ten minutes into the movie was its pinnacle.

The best performance in the movie from Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s Polish immigrant mother Frances; she is unrecognizable under her the ethnic latex makeup.  Cheyenne Jackson as Liberace’s protegé Billy Leatherwood should win an Emmy for his superb reaction shots.

Matt Damon’s portrayal of Scott Thorson is strong, but I was surprised he didn’t even try to emulate Thorson’s affected accent, which to my ear doesn’t seem a far stretch from his native Boston accent.

Donc, I wasn’t surprised when I read Damon say that he and Soderbergh didn’t think it was necessary to speak with Thorson before filming. In an interview from Slate Damon, whom I still believe to be an excellent actor, offered the following comment that I implore every aspiring actor to ignore:

“We got everything we needed from his book.  I think meeting him before I did it, 30 years after this happened, wouldn’t have been helpful.”  

Au very contraire, mon frère.

Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace is the biggest disappointment.  It was a courageous move for an A list star to play a flamboyant homosexual, and he should be applauded for that.  However, it would be disingenuous of me to praise his portrayal out of pity.   His Liberace is more of a caricature than a personification.

This disappointing perspective is revealed in Douglas’ first appearance as Liberace.  He is performing his show at the Las Vegas Hilton, playing the audience participation boogie-woogie.  ”Isn’t this fun?” he asks creepily, like a desperate birthday party clown trying to engage bored, distracted toddlers.

He has none of the gaiety (yes, pun intended), perky, lightweight joy that made the real Liberace so endearing and are on display in this clip that is re-enacted in the movie.

My anticipation is not due to an obsession with Liberace or the salacious details of his life- okay, maybe the latter un tout petit peu.  

It comes from nostalgia for my childhood as I remember seeing Liberace as a kid on TV; his presence was ubiquitous.  I loved anything that sparkled, and no one and nothing sparkled the way he did.  Since his death, he’s become the embodiment of a bygone era of Las Vegas, and his influence on performers as diverse as Elton John, KISS,  Freddie Mercury, even Lady Gaga is undeniable.

I remember the announcement of the project several years ago, and I couldn’t imagine Michael Douglas playing Liberace.  

Many didn’t believe me when I told them about this unusual casting decision.  When Michael Douglas was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer, the project was put on hold indefinitely; it seemed unlikely it would ever be made.  Against the odds, Douglas has made an amazing recovery (restoring my credibility), and the project was able to move forward.

At hearing this news, I rushed to snag a copy of Behind the Candelabra, the out-of-print, tell-all memoir by Liberace’s jilted lover Scott Thorson upon which this movie is based.  Before the prices went through the roof, I was able to snag a hardcover first edition (!) with intact dust jacket for less than $40- pardon the humble brag.

 

Scott Thorson's mMemoir released in 1988 © E P Dutton
Scott Thorson’s memoir released in 1988
© E P Dutton

As is usually the case, the book is better.  Surprisingly, there were more than a few conspicuous discrepancies between the book and the movie.  I won’t speculate on the reasons for the alterations, as artistic license could suffice as an explanation for all.  

I will merely point them out, and reveal some information about Scott Thorson that is not mentioned in the book or movie that links him and Liberace to one of Hollywood’s most infamous crimes.

 

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Key scenes in the movie are revealed in explaining inconsistencies with Thorson’s memoir

 

  Scott Bakula’s character in the movie is called Bob, but in real life, the man who introduced Thorson to Liberace was named Ray Arnett.  He had worked for Liberace as his stage director.  In the movie, it’s unclear what the connection is between “Bob” (Ray) and Liberace; Entertainment Weekly said “Bob” was a choreographer and hanger-on.

In the movie, Thorson rebuffs Liberace’s physical advances at first by asserting repeatedly that he is bisexual.  Thorson doesn’t stress this point in the book, rather he reveals that when Liberace first made a move on him, he was physically repulsed by his age and his body, an aversion it took considerable effort to overcome. 

 Liberace’s protegé is called Billy Leatherwood in the movie but in real life his name was Jerry O’Rourke.  In the movie, he leaves as soon as Thorson moves into Liberace’s house; in the book, Thorson said it took four months, full of tension and acrimony before O’Rourke left.  

In the movie, there is a scene where Thorson and Liberace visit an adult book store in matching full length furs.  Not only is this incident not in the book, it strains credulity to believe it would have ever have happened. Wherefore this inane scene? I conjecture they thought it would justify the subsequent scene in which Scott convinces Liberace that he really does care for him, after having been berated for being a buzzkill at the porn store.

No sale:

   Liberace’s first priority was to conceal his sexuality from his fans; every facet of his life and career depended on this deception.  Liberace’s judgment would never have been impaired to such a reckless degree. He drank but was not an alcoholic (the movie includes a scene where Liberace refuses to imbibe between shows).

 The only drugs he took were poppers (amyl-nitrate), a drug used during sex that causes vasodilation (muscle relaxing- you do the math); its affects are short-lived and don’t act on the brain apart from a possible headache. Finally, Liberace had a massive, personal collection of kinky gay pornography- detailed clearly in the book and mentioned in the film; he had everything he needed at home.  

   Liberace was to be cremated per his family’s wishes, not buried as the movie purports. After he died, his body was taken 120 miles to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles for the cremation, but before his body even arrived in LA, it was ordered back to Palm Springs.  

A BBC documentary from 2000 entitled Liberace: Too Much Of A Good Thing Is Wonderful explains how the Palm Springs Coroner exercised his jurisdiction to order Liberace’s body be returned to Palm Springs, under police escort, for an autopsy to determine the actual cause of death and for the coroner to have his moment is the spotlight.

The announced cause of death, a heart attack from having followed a “watermelon diet,” was so absurd that it only intensified suspicion that Liberace had AIDS. Had Liberace been cremated, his AIDS diagnosis would have forever remained unsubstantiated. 

 While the funeral depicted in the movie is another instance of the movie’s discrepancy with reality,  I found it a lovely gesture to Thorson from Soderbergh, as it portrays the funeral Thorson believed Liberace deserved as described in the book.

In reality, Liberace’s funeral was a low-key affair, sparsely attended, as celebrities who feared their careers would be tainted by the revelation he had died of AIDS, shunned him.

A memorial service, from which his body was absent, was held at at Our Lady Of Solitude Church, where parishioners couldn’t recall his being a member as clearly as they could the adult Halloween parties he threw directly across the street. Hee, hee.

The most ironic detail I found in my research is that the only celebrity who attended Liberace’s memorial service was:

 Kirk Douglas (star Michael’s father).

Details NOT in the book OR Movie!

Ironically, Liberace’s sexuality was an open secret in Palm Springs,  the resort town that ” …had long observed with tolerant eyes the peccadillos of Hollywood Celebrities who enjoyed unwinding and misbehaving in the desert,” according to one of Liberace’s biographers, AP writer Bob Thomas.  ”No one commented on the comings and goings at the Liberace house, nor his appearances in restaurants with blond young men.”  

However, in line with his priorities, Liberace kept his gay world separate and private.  Steve Garey, who was a friend of Liberace’s for the last six years of his life, noted he kept his groups of friends from different cities separate and “…wasn’t involved in the gay community.  He was involved in show business.” 

 The lawyer played by Paul Reiser was named Michael Rosenthal.  It is a shame that Soderbergh didn’t let Reiser play the full spectrum of this character as I believe he would have been amazing.  The idea of the palimony suit was suggested to Thorson as a publicity stunt; Thorson didn’t even know what palimony was. He claimed Rosenthal took advantage of a drug-addicted young man with lots of money.  Thorson claims the lawyer supplied him with cocaine. Rosenthal was eventually disbarred. In the movie, it’s unclear why Thorson lets this lawyer convince him to take such an unfair settlement.

Thorson’s subsequent lawyer was able to get all of Scott’s property returned; the palimony claim was thrown out.  Thorson was not left penniless as the movie implies.

Le Grand Scoop!

Through Scott Thorson, Liberace can be considered an inadvertent link to one of the most salacious murders in Hollywood history.  

Before OJ, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector, but after the Manson family, there were the Wonderland Murders.  You will hopefully be relieved that I won’t go into a detailed description as I’ve provided a link to the crime’s Wikipedia page. I learned of this connection from a UK Channel Five documentary about the crime and from a transcript Thorson’s appearance on Larry King on CNN. 

While the movie and book claim that Thorson became a drug addict during the course of his relationship with Liberace, the movie doesn’t clearly explain how, what, or why.

Thorson had gained a lot of weight while the couple were in Europe, and they were referred to a doctor by Liberace’s hairdresser, Guy Richards. The doctor, Dr. Jack Startz (played by Rob Lowe) was a plastic surgeon. Priscilla Presley worked for him at the time they met; this should have indicated his level of (in)competence.  The movie only hints at the degree of the doctor’s incompetence; Liberace was never able to close his eyes completely after the facelift performed by Dr. Starz.  The movie shows the doctor under the influence while operating on Thorson; in the book, Thorson observed him drinking while preparing to operate on Liberace.

After Liberace’s facelift, Starz was engaged to operate on Thorson’s face.  Liberace wanted Thorson to resemble him. I believe this bizarre desire was an expression of Liberace’s distorted desire to be a father to Scott and therefore create a resemblance, rather than pure narcissism.  Not only did Startz not refuse this unscrupulous request, he assured Liberace he could achieve the desired result.

Concurrent with the surgery, Startz prescribed Thorson what he called the “California Diet,” a proprietary compound whose ingredients are not disclosed in the movie.  They were:  pharmaceutical cocaine, quaaludes, biphetamine, and demerol.  Thorson claimed he became a drug addict because of the plastic surgery.  Thorson was upset that Liberace didn’t offer to help Thorson with the addiction Liberace allowed to take hold; eventually Liberace had a change of heart.

 Dr. Starz committed suicide when he found out Liberace was planning to take legal action against him.

Although Liberace blamed drugs as the reason for ending his relationship with Thorson, Liberace tolerated Thorson’s addiction long before their final break.

While Liberace was performing in Lake Tahoe, he allowed Thorson free, unlimited use of his Lear Jet. During this engagement, Thorson learned of the death of his foster mother Rose.  He flew back for her funeral, but by this time, he could no longer obtain prescriptions to maintain his drug habit.

Thorson then became a regular customer of Eddie Nash, a Palestinian immigrant who had become the godfather of Los Angeles’ nightlife and by the 1980s had become a housebound, addicted, druglord.  Since Nash was unable to obtain his drug supply, Thorson, being a regular customer needing the supply as much as Nash, offered to run these errands for him.  While Thorson sold much of the jewelry given to him by Liberace to pay for his drugs, he let Liberace pay the freight by using his plane.

Thus, Liberace was, by indirect and oblivious association, a drug dealer- and paying to participate.

 

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