NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t


Director Steven Soderbergh had been looking for a way to frame a film about the extravagant entertainer Liberace for years when a friend recommended the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. The book — a memoir — is by Scott Thorson, who for five years was Liberace’s lover, though that wasn’t publicly disclosed at the time. Thorson was 40 years younger than Liberace and still in his teens when they met in 1977. Liberace was a huge star, famous for his showy piano playing, his flashy outfits — bejeweled jackets, feathered capes, fur coats — and the candelabra that was almost always on his piano. “When I read that book, it sort of solved all my problems,” Soderbergh tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “It gave me a specific time period to deal with; there was the arc of the relationship between the two of them to give me a structure. And that’s when things really started to move.”

The resulting film, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson, premieres on HBO on May 26. It’s being released in theaters abroad, and is competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this week. Soderbergh — who broke big on the filmmaking scene in 1989, at age 26, with Sex, Lies, and Videotape — went with HBO for Behind the Candelabra because no major American studio would take a risk on the picture. “There was a sense,” says Soderbergh, “that the movie wouldn’t have any appeal outside of a gay audience, and that that audience wouldn’t be big enough to return the investment. And so we just couldn’t get anybody to do it.”

But one of Soderbergh’s producers, Jerry Weintraub, was working with HBO at the time and mentioned the project to executives there. It was exactly the kind of film the company wanted to be making — and the deal “was done immediately.” The relationship between Liberace and Thorson may be the engine of the film, but the same-sex nature of that relationship is not the point. “It’s a very intimate movie,” says Soderbergh. “It’s a very emotionally intimate movie, and there are scenes between them that are almost uncomfortable in their intimacy. [But they] would be if it was a man and a woman involved. … I always felt that if we did our jobs correctly, that halfway through the movie you’d forget that it was Michael and Matt and just feel as though you’re watching a relationship.” Soderbergh, who previously directed Douglas in Traffic and Damon in the Ocean’s movies and The Informant, was interested in the theatricality of Liberace’s persona and the precedent it set in show business. “You could make an argument that Liberace really invented the idea of ‘bling,’ ” he says. “I mean, nobody was dressing themselves like this. When you look at the people that have followed him — whether it’s Elvis or Elton John or Cher or Madonna or Lady Gaga — you know, all these people are sort of building on something that he began.” MORE

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