Loud, lavish and luxurious: just who was Liberace?

Posted on Thu 6 Jun 2013

Behind The Candelabra, the latest (and, apparently, last) film from Steven Soderbergh, opens on Friday on a wave of praise and plaudits from Cannes. Based on the life of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his relationship, when he was 57, with 18-year-old Scott Thorson (40-something Matt Damon in very good make up), it's a riot of flamboyance and drama with brilliant performances from its central duo.

If you're under a certain age you'd be forgiven for not having any knowledge or awareness of Liberace. Who was this so-called Mr Entertainment and why was he one of the most famous people on earth, joining the likes of other mononymous celebrities such as Garbo and Sinatra who need only one name? How did he influence Elvis, Elton John and even Jimi Hendrix?

Born Wladzu Valentino Liberace in 1919 in Wisconsin, the young Liberace was a prodigious talent on the piano, learning to play by the age of 4. He went on to sing, play the piano and revolutionise television with his weekly programme (which was more popular than I Love Lucy), and eventually became the highest paid entertainer in the world from the late 50s through to the 70s. He was bigger than Elvis (and indeed introduced Elvis to his first gold jacket... Liberace invented bling before it was even a thing) - he was, in his own words, 'a one-man Disneyland'.

Liberace described his playing as classical music with the 'boring bits' left out and frequently sprinkled his music with bits of contemporary pop, Broadway tunes and even Chopsticks... all at very high speeds. He could apparently play 6,000 notes in two minutes and audiences ate it up - especially older women, who were delighted by his costumes and stage sets.

Oh yes, there were costumes and sets galore. Liberace garnered attention for his flamboyant lifestyle - all mirror Rolls Royces, $300,000 bejewelled fox fur coats, Vegas style glamour and 'a fashion sense that would have made Lady Gaga look like Margaret Thatcher' - furs, sequined catsuits, pearls, feathers, beads and crystals that twinkled and stunned.

He was painfully aware of his core audience of middle aged lower and working class housewives and outwardly seemed to share their politically conservative, devoutly Catholic views, going to great lengths to cover up his sexuality, suing anyone who suggested he might be gay.

When the Daily Mirror columnist William Connor (who wrote under the byline Cassandra) wrote a nasty review of Liberace saying he was "the summit of sex - the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want... a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love" Liberace successfully won his libel case and coined a well known phrase to boot, saying he was "laughing all the way to the bank".

During his intense, bizarre relationship with Scott Thorson Liberace attempted to legally adopt Thorson and encouraged his 'blonde adonis' to have plastic surgery to look like a younger version of himself. When he gained weight, their plastic surgeon (in Behind The Candelabra he is brilliantly played by an almost unrecognisable Rob Lowe) prescribed what he called the 'Hollywood diet' (cocaine, amphetamines and Quaaludes), kicking off a dangerous drug habit that would last decades. Liberace's own surgery was so extreme that it left him unable to close his eyes properly when he slept.

Liberace and Thorson spent five years together (his staff apparently threw Thorson out of his penthouse wearing only his pyjamas and a fur coat) and Thorson quickly filed a $113m palimony lawsuit (it was settled out of court). Liberace died in 1987 from an AIDS-related illness after a series of record-breaking engagements at New York's Radio City Musical Hall.

Michael Douglas met Liberace a couple of times as a boy, and heard nothing but good things about him. He said in a recent interview:

"My dad and his friends talked warmly about Liberace as a great guy - although they tried to invite him without his boyfriends, who were numerous and came and went. Lee was kind and goodhearted - which was one of the reasons I was attracted to the role - I don't play many nice people."

It's a corker of a role, and one that would have surely earned Douglas an Oscar for Best Actor. This won't happen though, because the film was made and screened by HBO (coy US film studios wouldn't touch it as they thought it was 'too gay' for US audiences) it is deemed ineligible for any nominations. Could the rules change for next year? We believe it deserves to be enjoyed in the cinema, and are proud to welcome it to our screens from Fri 7 June for at least 2 weeks.