Television movies rarely generate the sort of buzz that HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” has, but how often do TV movies, even on premium cable, feature Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as lovers?
Premiering Sunday, May 26, the film revolves around the relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, who was his partner for years.
This takes Liberace and Scott from their 1977 meeting, when Liberace was a Vegas headliner and Scott a naive kid, through their five-year relationship, public breakup and eventually Liberace’s death from AIDS in 1987.
In the beginning, Scott is 17, which Damon acknowledges is a stretch.
“Seventeen’s way out of my range,” Damon tells Zap2it, shaking his head and laughing. “And I said that to Steven [Soderbergh, the director]. ‘This is ridiculous!’ I am 42. I look younger than I am, but I don’t look that much younger. I probably look 30 more than 20. It is more about an older guy who loves a younger guy.”
Liberace had a penchant for younger men. Much has been made about the sex scenes, and Douglas and Damon, in separate interviews, laugh about it.
Still, what were those steamy scenes like?
“There’s anxiety because you don’t want to screw it up,” Damon says. “And it is a place where everyone is going to be looking carefully. To me it’s much less about the kissing and more about how you are with someone in your most intimate relationship. There’s a physical comfort level when you are in the room with your husband or wife. There are no secrets.”
Ideally, what he hoped to achieve “are those intimate moments when there are no cameras around.
“Was it weird kissing Michael Douglas?” Damon says. “Yeah, but to be honest, it’s weird kissing anyone on camera. You are five feet away from 40 of your closest friends.”
Speaking in the same hotel suite, but half an hour earlier, Douglas, who just gives off the movie star glow, says, “Call me easy, but we didn’t think about it much. I was teasing Matt about his Brazilian tan line on his butt. We just felt comfortable.”
Once Liberace and Scott settle into a relationship, there are sweet domestic scenes, such as watching TV, eating popcorn — the mundane living of any relationship.
“Together we realized what a true love story it was,” Douglas says. “I am happiest if you forget that is Matt and I. Forget it is two guys. It is two people very much in love and the fights, the squabbles and things that go on.”
Soderbergh does a terrific job of showing the day-to-day lives of the couple, but it was an unusual setup because Liberace had been such a huge star and lived so large. He wore a $300,000 white virgin fox coat, lined with $100,000 in crystals and sequins.
Liberace was famous for his ornate outfits, and his home looked as if it would have put the French aristocracy to shame. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, like production designer Howard Cummings, clearly did massive research to nail down every detail.
“Who was the real Liberace?” Mirojnick says she pondered. “That is what I really started thinking about. I could not help but really want to investigate who was the real guy, not what did he wear, but who was he? What was his life about?”
In addition to copious research, she and her team spent three weeks just picking the base fabric for one of his most famous costumes, the Neptune, which makes Douglas look like Liberace on the half shell.
Despite the bead-encrusted costumes, antiques, a Rolls-Royce and a larger-than-life way about him, Douglas was determined to play Liberace as a man and not as some camp act.
Both actors note that people who knew him — including Debbie Reynolds — had only kind words for the showman. Douglas, who as a child met Liberace, recalls he drove a Rolls-Royce convertible.
“As theatrical as the piece was, there was simplicity,” Douglas says. “I didn’t want winking at the camera.”
At one point, after a tremendous amount of plastic surgery, Liberace could not wink. He could not even shut his eyes to sleep.
Rob Lowe, looking like Teri Hatcher after a botched face-lift, shows up as a plastic surgeon. Reynolds is unrecognizable as Liberace’s beloved mom.
As terrific as all are, the movie belongs to Douglas and Damon. The film’s absolutely bravest scene — at least from an actor’s perspective — has Liberace, just out of a bath, a towel wrapped around him. Douglas is in a fat suit, a bald cap and wig. It’s not dreamy.
Both men wore prosthetic devices for their roles, and both actors trusted Soderbergh, with whom they had worked repeatedly.
Douglas was working with the director on “Traffic” when Soderbergh broached the topic of this movie. It took years to make, as both actors were busy, Douglas became ill and then recovered, and it finally all worked.
“This is a character piece,” Douglas says. “I didn’t worry about it. Three years after cancer, I am just really happy to be acting again.”