The news out today that Michael Douglas and Matt Damon will star (as the charismatic pianist and his boyfriend) in an HBO Liberace biopic entitled Behind the Candelabra, to be directed by Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Ocean's Eleven, Traffic, Erin Brockovich), brings to mind the pair of dueling Liberace TV movies from back in 1988.
Liberace died on February 4th, 1987, after a glorious and multifaceted career, and also after a struggle with AIDS (never publicly acknowledged by Liberace, though) and earlier notoriety from a palimony suit brought by his young male companion Scott Thorson. It took a year and a half before both ABC and CBS each brought out their own TV Movies. In a terrific example of TV timing -- though I suppose we should be amazed that they didn't schedule them head-to-head against each other -- ABC's Liberace aired on Sunday, October 2, 1988, to be followed exactly a week later by the CBS TVM Liberace: Behind the Music.
ABC's version starred veteran actor and familiar TV face Andrew Robinson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Cobra, Dirty Harry, Ryan's Hope) as Liberace, with Rue McClanahan (Maude, The Golden Girls) as Liberace's sainted mother Frances, and John Rubenstein (Crazy Like a Fox, Family, Angel, Desperate Housewives and many more) as Liberace's business associate. This version was more discreet about Liberace's private life and only hinted at his gay lifestyle, instead portraying his struggle to maintain a private life more in general terms and not just concerning his sexuality. Robinson was terrific as Liberace, too.
Here's a scene from the movie, and you can see a promo on YouTube by clicking here.
Liberace: Behind the Music, the CBS take on the subject, starred Canadian actor Victor Garber as Liberace. Garber, now well-known for his roles in Alias and especially in the blockbuster film Titanic, wasn't anything close to a household name at the time this telefilm was made. Of course, theatergoers knew him for his Tony-nominated presence on Broadway in many prestigious productions (including in the original cast of Sweeney Todd), and he had also starred in the movie version of his breakout musical Godspell in 1972 and did many other supporting roles on TV, but his big stardom was to come later. Well-respected actress Maureen Stapleton (Cocoon, The Money Pit, Reds, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, Plaza Suite, Airport) co-starred as Frances Liberace, and veteran Canadian character actor Saul Rubinek (Warehouse 13, Nixon, Dick, Frasier) appeared as Liberace's business manager.
Here's the promo for the movie, and then a scene:
Garber also got kudos for his impressive and sensitive work as Liberace, and this movie was more open about his sexual orientation which gives it an edge in the realism department, though it's still a typical TV biopic. Obviously the Soderbergh project will deal with the older Liberace if Michael Douglas is playing him, and even though Scott Thorson was only in his early twenties during their affair, Matt Damon may be good enough to pull off that age difference...but he is over 40 now, so it could be a stretch. Still, this could be a terrific TVM and in any case it's going to be fascinating and unusual. Producer Jerry Weintraub spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the project, and you can read the interesting article by clicking here.
If the news of this project has piqued your own interest in Liberace (as it has mine), you should take a look at a few good websites, particularly the excellent Bob's World of Liberace; The Liberace Foundation and Museum; this very detailed account of Liberace's starring movie role in 1953's Sincerely Yours, and of course Wikipedia's concise bio of Liberace. Liberace was a consummate entertainer with a unique sense of style and personal flair that set him apart from everyone else of his era. We're really looking forward to Behind the Candelabra when it shows up on HBO! Hurry up!