HBO’s upcoming film “Behind the Candelabra” chronicles the tumultuous — to put it mildly — five-year love affair of “Lee” Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). On Friday, Douglas and Damon joined director Steven Soderbergh and executive producer Jerry Weintraub to discuss the film, which tracks the toxic relationship from their first meeting to their split five years later.
The movie is based on Thorson’s memoir, “Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace,” which he wrote shortly after Liberace’s death. Though Thorson was only 16 when the relationship began, Damon obviously plays him a bit older — though from the clips we saw, not by much. Perhaps the most jarring part of the film is Liberace’s request that Thorson get plastic surgery to look more like Liberace himself. The real Thorson agreed to a nose job, a chin implant, and a complete restructuring of his cheekbones.
Though the film is obviously an extremely intimate, fraught retelling of a pivotal period in Thorson’s life, Damon did not meet Thorson before playing him.
“Matt didn’t talk to Scott Thorson,” says Weintraub, who was a close acquaintance of Liberace’s during his life. “I did all the conversations with
Scott. He had no involvement in the making of the film whatsoever
[except for the book].”
Thorson has yet to give the movie his stamp of approval. “He has not seen it,” Weintraub confirms. “I’ve talked to him. I
have not been able to reach him in the past 9 or 10 weeks. I’ve tried to reach him a number of times [to fact check]. He hasn’t been well. I have no idea where he is at the present moment.”
Still, Damon made sure Thorson’s influence is felt. “He really was taken with the glamour of this lifestyle,” Damon says. “Even when
writing the book he talked about how impressed he was and how exciting
it was to be involved in the glamour.”
That impacted his decisions as an actor — and as a clotheshorse. “I’ve always been somebody who goes into the wardrobe fitting and I try to get out as fast as I can… I just kind of can’t be bothered with it, but… I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this thing than I have in the previous 15 projects. Days and days and days, and I really enjoyed it.”
Though their lifestyle was wild, for Damon, Thorson and Liberace’s story isn’t about spectacle, but about a powerful, genuine love. “There are aspects of their relationships that were absurd, but for me it just pointed out that there are aspects of all of our lives that are absurd,” he says. “They’re just not absurd to us because it’s our lives.”
Liberace was publicly living as a straight man during his relationship with Thorson — he even successfully sued a tabloid for suggesting he was gay. For the filmmakers, that was a particular selling point for the film. “I wanted to make a film to show how we’ve grown,” says Weintraub. “To show the progression of our human race, of our country, of all the people in the world about this subject. Same-sex unions are recognized now and permitted in certain places. Being gay has lost its social stigma.”
Richard LaGravenese’s script moved Damon enough that he didn’t feel it necessary to meet Thorson in order to play a genuine version of him. “Whether this was the actual dynamic or not, I completely believe what [LaGravenese] had written. What it felt like was, if this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you’d feel at moments like [the movie] is too intimate. ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ But it was between a man and a man, and I’ve never seen that movie before.”
Despite Thorson’s attraction the glamour, Damon believes he was truly in love with Liberace. “I think his love was genuine but I think it was complicated,” Damon says. “He was looking for a family and Lee gave that to him. They had a profound love for each other. It ended badly but there were a lot of wonderful moments and a lot of ups and downs… I don’t think Scott had an angle the whole time. He genuinely fell for him which was why he was hurt ultimately at the end.”