Behind the Candelabra: Michael Douglas’ Liberace

One of the things that worried Michael Douglas about playing Liberace, the flamboyant Las Vegas superstar, was the rumored fourteen-inch penis. “It may not have been fourteen inches,” Douglas explained, “but it was huge.”

“Liberace loved sex,” Douglas said, “and I didn’t have a problem with that. But, at one point, Steven Soderbergh, the director of Behind the Candelabra, which airs on HBO on May 26] wanted to show Lee as ­Liberace was known watching a gay porno. I said, ­‘Steven—you can’t do this!’ He said, ‘It’s HBO—it’s all right!’ I said, ‘It’s not that: I’d like my kids to see this R-rated movie, but I don’t want to show them a fourteen-inch dick!’ It was the only thing I objected to, so we cut to different parts of the apartment during the porno.” Douglas paused. “You know, Lee also loved to decorate. He had his passions: his career, his homes, which were over the top, and his private life as a gay man.”

Behind the Candelabra takes place in another world, where being openly gay and famous was viewed as impossible. For Liberace, who sued a London newspaper and won when it insinuated about his sexuality, revealing his orientation would have been career suicide.

The movie, which isn’t really a biography, is the story of Liberace’s life with Scott Thorson, a naïve 18-year-old (played by Matt Damon with innocence) who was Liberace’s live-in boyfriend for five years. Their relationship—Liberace was 57 when they met backstage at one of Lee’s Vegas extravaganzas—was intense, bizarre, and, despite the glitz and glamour, remarkably like that of any married couple.

“I wanted to make something really intimate,” Soderbergh said. “I liked the Sunset Boulevard aspect of Lee and Scott—older, younger; powerful, not powerful. With some show business thrown into it. During his career, Liberace was the most successful act to play Vegas—he made up to $400,000 a week during the 1970s—but he was very private.

The film is about a part of his life that he didn’t share with anyone; it is an act of imagination, but I wanted it to be sincere. I didn’t want it to be unkind, because everyone loved Liberace. He was the nicest man.”

For Douglas, the sexuality of Behind the Candelabra was the easiest part to get right.

In the past few years, Douglas was diagnosed with life-­threatening cancer, and his oldest son was sent to prison. There is a boldness in his portrayal of Liberace—a combination of showbiz grit, longing for family, and intense vulnerability—that seems to ­mirror Douglas’s recent hardships. In his long, over 40-year career—playing ­everything from Gordon Gekko, a titan of Wall Street (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor), to the philandering husband in Fatal ­Attraction to a ­compromised cop in Basic Instinct to a pot-smoking novelist in Wonder Boys—Douglas has always been a Zeitgeist–embodiment of the modern man. Which means he has never worn prosthetics in a movie, let alone a rhinestone-encrusted floor-length fur cape decorated with sequins.

“I was the girl on this movie! The hair and makeup for Liberace took two and a half hours,” Douglas said. “I’ve never done elaborate hair and makeup before. Up until now, my entire career has been contemporary.”

Part of Douglas’s movie persona has always been a willingness to be bold in sex scenes. In what he jokingly refers to as “the sex trilogy”—Fatal ­Attraction, Basic Instinct, and ­Disclosure—he was often naked (from behind) and, especially in Basic Instinct, the sexual couplings were quite graphic. “I wanted to do a real fucking slam dance in Basic Instinct. And we did.”

Behind the ­Candelabra is similarly explicit: The pre-Viagra Liberace had a silicone implant in his penis to ensure erection, and Douglas does not shy away from this information and all it implies. “Once you get that first kiss in, you are comfortable,” Douglas said. “Matt and I didn’t rehearse the love scenes. We said, ‘Well—we’ve read the script, haven’t we?’ ” Douglas laughed. “The hardest thing about sex scenes is that everybody is a judge. I don’t know the last time you murdered somebody or blew anyone’s brains out, but everyone has had sex and probably this morning, which means everyone has an opinion on how it should be done.”

The sexual content—the gayness of Behind the Candelabra—made it a tough sell to the studios. It was originally conceived as a feature film rather than an HBO movie, but none of the major companies wanted to finance the film, which cost only $23 million and featured two major stars.

“Everybody loved the script by Richard LaGravenese, based on Scott Thorson’s memoir of his life with Liberace,” said Jerry Weintraub, the veteran producer who worked with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and knew Liberace. “The party line was that Behind the Candelabra would not appeal to anyone who is not gay. Interestingly, they forgot that Liberace’s own audience in the fifties and sixties was not gay. It was purple-haired ladies who loved his act—he knew how to take the audience upside down, sideways, and backward. He was an artist, and yet, when I saw him at his house, he was free and open with his sexuality. There were men in every room! I didn’t care—it just meant there were more women for me!”

In the late seventies, Weintraub produced Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as a cop hunting down a serial killer in the homosexual leather scene. The movie was going to receive an X for “a penis inserted into a guy’s behind,” said Weintraub. “The studio was afraid to put it out, but it made them a fantastic amount of money.”

Neither Weintraub nor Soderbergh gave up. Soderbergh had been interested in Liberace as a topic for years, and while they were on the set of Traffic in 2000, he had asked Michael Douglas about playing him. “I was cast in Traffic as a government drug-enforcement czar in a gray suit and tie,” Douglas recalled. “And Steven came up to me and wanted to know if I ever thought about playing Liberace.” Douglas laughed. “I thought he was playing a game with me—like it was some mind-fuck trick to get me into the character. But I played along—I imitated Lee’s voice briefly for him, and we went on with making Traffic.”

Although he wasn’t sure if Soderbergh was serious, Douglas, too, had an immediate attraction to the bravado and complexity of playing Liberace. In many of his films, he is usually the nice guy who is surrounded by extreme characters, mostly women—whether they be psychotic killers or wronged lovers or some combination of both. While he is not a particularly self-reflective person, Douglas is aware that his considerable charm, both on-camera and off, can be a protective device, an area in which to operate safely. “I do feel I get dismissed sometimes,” he said. “It may be a second-generation-­Hollywood thing—my father [Kirk Douglas] was known for tough-guy parts, and I probably gravitated toward the cerebral rather than the physical to be different from him.” Having worked as a producer—at 31, he won the Academy Award for Best Picture for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—Douglas was also more interested in the film as an entity, rather than the stellar nature of his individual part. “I always wanted the movie to be good, rather than just my part or my performance,” Douglas continued. “If a movie is good, it works out for everyone. And that was, selfishly, always my goal.”

With Liberace, Douglas saw the possibility of both an exceptional part and a compelling movie. “I also had a strong memory of Liberace,” Douglas said. “I met him once with my father in Palm Springs, where they both had homes, but what I mostly remember is Lee’s TV show. Liberace talked directly to the camera—he was the first person to do that. He was having such a good time that he was contagious. For me, Lee’s gayness didn’t even enter the picture—you just wanted to share the good time with him. And he was nice. I was attracted to his sheer likability.”

By 2010, Soderbergh had offered the part to Damon, who signed on instantly. Douglas received the finished script, and HBO had agreed to finance the film, which will be broadcast on TV in America and released in theaters outside of the USA. “When Soderbergh said that Matt wanted to play Scott, I was impressed,” Douglas recalled. “In the prime of my career, I don’t think I’d be choosing to play Scott. I mean, he has to wear a white sequined thong! That takes real guts.” Douglas laughed. “We were ready to go,” Douglas said flatly. “And then I found out I had cancer. That put things off for a while.”

But in 2010, Douglas hadn’t been feeling well. “I knew something was wrong,” he said, speaking slowly. “My tooth was really sore, and I thought I had an infection. I had two rounds of appointments with ear-nose-and-throat doctors and periodontists. They each gave me antibiotics. And then more antibiotics, but I still had pain. I went to Spain with the family [Douglas has two young children, Carys, 10, and Dylan, 12, with his wife, the actress ­Catherine Zeta-Jones, and a son, ­Cameron, with his former wife, Diandra] for the summer, and when I got back, a friend suggested I go to his doctor in Montreal. That doctor told me to open my mouth, took a tongue depressor, and then he looked at me. I will always remember the look on his face. He said, ‘We need a biopsy.’ There was a walnut-size tumor at the base of my tongue that no other doctor had seen. Two days later, after the biopsy, the doctor called and said I had to come in. He told it me it was stage-four cancer. I said, ‘Stage four. Jesus.’ And that was that.”

Douglas talks about his cancer in an almost distant way, as if telling a story about someone else. After the diagnosis, Douglas began an intensive eight-week program of chemotherapy and radiation. The radiation burned the inside of his mouth, and eating became nearly impossible. “If you get a feeding tube, you quickly lose the ability to swallow,” Douglas explained. “They recommended that I try to eat and I never got the feeding tube. Matzo-ball soup was great, but I still lost 45 pounds.” Douglas paused. “That’s life,” he said finally. “Things had been going good for me for a long time. I was ready for some karmic retribution.”

Ironically, before becoming ill, Douglas had completed work on both Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street, and Solitary Man, an independent movie about an aging, self-destructive Lothario with a severe heart condition that he ignores. Douglas is extraordinary in Solitary Man—dark, haunted, and intensely lonely. Even though he was ill, Douglas decided to promote both movies, and after the first week of radiation and chemo, he went on The Late Show With David Letterman. He discussed his medical condition in a surprisingly candid manner: Letterman seemed stunned. At one point in their conversation, after Letterman commented on how great he looked, Douglas replied, “[It’s] because I’m onstage. Kirk would say, ‘Son, you’ve got to look good, you never know when you might have cancer.’ ”

It was (sort of) a joke, but grace under pressure mixed with tenacity is one of the keys to Douglas’s personality and his longevity as a performer. He is old school in the sense that you tough out the bad times and, you hope, don’t reveal more than you want seen. “When I was ill, I mostly lay on that couch,” he said, pointing to the ­forest-green sofa. “I watched a lot of sports, anything where I didn’t know the ending.” I asked him if he missed working. “I did, but I was too weak to miss much of anything. I was stage four, and there is no stage five. After complaining for nine months and them not finding anything, and then they told me I was stage four?! That was a big day.”

In 2011, after his treatment finished, Douglas flew to L.A. to present an award at the Golden Globes, where he was also nominated. As he walked onstage, he received a standing ovation. He looked scary-thin, but his famous hair was swept back, and the elegance of his tuxedo helped compensate for his weight loss. After the applause died down, Douglas said to the audience, “There’s got to be an easier way to get a standing ovation.” There was nervous, concerned laughter, but it is a sad fact of Hollywood that beating death is a good thing for a career: His cancer made the movie business appreciate Douglas again.

“Cancer does give you a new rejuvenation,” he admitted. “I know what it’s like to be down. I lost a couple of good friends—Larry Hagman and Nick ­Ashford—who had the same type of cancer that I did, and that makes you think. In the past, on purpose, I’ve never known what movie I’m going to do next. I never knew how I would feel when I finished a picture. Now it feels great to be back at work. Maybe that’s the benefit of taking a break with cancer: Then, people say, ‘What happened to him? Please come back.’ ”

Douglas believes that a propensity for addiction is part of the genetic makeup of his family: His half-brother Eric died of an accidental drug overdose; his brother Joel is a recovering alcoholic; and ­Douglas himself went to rehab in 1992 for what the press said was sex addiction but which he insists was for exhaustion and alcohol abuse.

“I went right after Basic Instinct,” Douglas said. “People said it was for sex addiction because Basic Instinct was in the air. But it was really because I was depressed after I lost my stepfather, whom I was very close to. I went through a rough time.” Catherine Zeta-Jones recently went to a ­health-care facility for a second time to treat her “bipolarity.”

The Liberace story could easily have been turned into a campfest, full of superficiality and razzle-dazzle. Instead, both Soderbergh and Douglas were interested in something they both value greatly: a kind of professionalism and sense of commitment that represents the best of Holly­wood. “Liberace worked hard,” Douglas said, echoing Soderbergh’s earlier statements. “When Scott Thorson became a drug addict and Liberace’s work was imperiled, their relationship cratered. When I watch the movie, I forget it’s Matt and me pretty quickly. And soon after that, I forget it’s two guys. The fights, the love—it’s a couple. There’s always that moment in a relationship where somebody has gone too far or they’ve done something that can’t be forgotten, and, suddenly, a little tendon is popped, and it never comes back. The only people you can forgive after something like that is your family. Lee tried, but he couldn’t forgive Scott until he was about to die.”

“My father had a tough time watching my death scene in Liberace,” Douglas said. “He was here when I was sick, and it was very hard for him. When he watched me die in the film, he did not say a lot.” Douglas paused. “My father is 96, and he’s still a really competitive guy,” he said.


Comment about kissing Damon was surely tongue in cheek (geddit!??).
Great to see Michael Douglas working again – I went through similar treatment this time last year and it is really, really hard. I resisted a feeding tube, too and lost 45lbs.
Still recovering but reading this made me smile. Thanks, Michael and NY Mag.
No one really wants to read the grisly details but I wish I could ask him how his saliva glands are going and if not so good, how he copes.
Ok off to the ENT specialist for the regular check-up. Bon chance, MD!

14 Hours Ago



I met Mike Douglas in 1994, I was star stuck and couldnt believe it. such a mellow down to earth person. people who live in the nyc will see him walking around town

20 Hours Ago



Great read. People tend to get more interesting with some experience and self-awareness. Terrific to see someone like him get the depth of attention he was given here.

I also enjoyed Kirk’s awesome autobiography and how it ends with his acknowledgement of passing the torch to his son, albeit grudgingly. 🙂 Love them guys.