Michael Douglas is already winning acclaim for his portrayal of Liberace. Shereen Low discovers the Hollywood legend is also thanking his lucky stars for simply having the opportunity to take the role after beating the Big C
Many actors dream of making a glittering return, after being away from the screen for a few years. For Michael Douglas, his post-cancer comeback has fully arrived playing Wladziu Valentino Liberace – better known simply as Liberace – in Steven Soderbergh’s feature-length biopic, Behind The Candelabra.
The two-time Oscar-winning actor has already been praised by critics for his mesmerising performance, following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May and its airing on US TV channel HBO days later.
“For me this has…,” starts the 68-year-old before pausing, overcome with emotion. “Because it was right after my cancer this beautiful gift was handed to me, I’m eternally grateful to Steven, Matt [Damon], Jerry [Weintraub, producer] and everybody for waiting for me.”
Douglas was diagnosed with life-threatening throat cancer in August 2010, and revealed he was clear of the disease in January 2011. Playing Liberace is his first major role since his recovery, aside from a small part in Soderbergh’s thriller Haywire in 2012. The star, talking from Cannes, says beating the big C has given him a new lease of life, saying: “Cancer does give you a new rejuvenation. I know what it’s like to be down. I was stage four, and there is no stage five. I lost good friends – Larry Hagman and Nick Ashford – who had the same type of cancer as I did, and that makes you think.”
Bizarrely, Douglas is currently embroiled in a “did he or didn’t he” controversy over remarks he made about oral sex being linked to cancer. At the weekend, he was quoted as saying that his strain of cancer had been caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). Asked if he regretted smoking and drinking, given his illness, he replied: “No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus.”
He continued: “I did worry if the stress caused by my son’s incarceration didn’t help trigger it [his son Cameron is in prison for drug possession and dealing]. But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer.”
Now his spokesman has claimed that Douglas was not talking specifically about his own cancer when he made his remarks.
This latest news item was an unexpected development in the Michael Douglas story, but so was the unlikely prospect of him portraying Liberace. The idea of the Wall Street star cast as the flamboyant showman was first mooted more than a decade ago, when he appeared in Traffic, also directed by Soderbergh.
“I thought he was messing with me,” says Douglas, who has been acting for more than 40 years and lives in New York with second wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their children, Dylan and Carys.
“I was playing the drugs czar in Traffic and I saw this pensive look on Steven’s face and he said, ‘Have you ever thought of Liberace?’ And I said, ‘What does that have to do with this?’
“He had me a little paranoid for a moment and I guess we teased about it. Steven remembers I tried to do an impression of Liberace, saying, ‘Thank you very much’ and then forgot about it.”
While Douglas, best known for his roles in Romancing The Stone, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, as well as Wall Street, put thoughts of Liberace away, Soderbergh did not. He continued trying to secure funding to develop the film, which is based on Behind The Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, the memoirs of his former chauffeur and lover Scott Thorson (played by Damon).
The highest-paid entertainer in the world from the 1950s to the 70s, Liberace – known as Lee to friends – was four years old when he learnt to play the piano under his father’s supervision. He made his concert debut at 20 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and soon rose to global success. “He had a very savvy sense of showmanship. Everybody said he was a wonderful host, very generous, gracious, loved, and was the forefather to Elton John, Lady Gaga and some others in creating that style,” says Douglas.
“Besides all his popularity in Las Vegas, The Liberace Show on TV made him well-known to everybody in the world. It was one of his great abilities to bring the audience into the room with him. And with that camp style, there was a genuine quality – about him, his performances and how happy he wanted to make people – that won everyone over.”
Behind The Candelabra exposes the troubled person behind the bouffant hairstyles and flamboyant fashions, and his secret love affair with Thorson. It traces the pair’s relationship from their first meeting in 1977 to Liberace’s deathbed in 1987, when the entertainer, who publicly denied being gay and sued those who claimed he was, tried to keep his HIV status secret.
Douglas, the eldest son of Kirk Douglas and Bermudian-born actress Diana Love Dill, met Liberace briefly through his dad. “I was visiting my father who had a house in Palm Springs, California, where Lee also had a house. We were at the crossroads and a car stopped –I think it was a Rolls Royce convertible – and this guy stepped out.
“I remember it was a bright Palm Springs day and between the gold around his neck and his rings, the light was bouncing off him outside. He had a great smile, not a hair out of place. Now I know why. He was charming.
“One of the things I enjoyed about this part was, I got to smile. I don’t smile a lot in my pictures. I’m always so grim. My career has been more in the grey, if not the dark area. Playing Liberace was so much fun! You put on this mask and it allows you to do anything you want. I don’t get to do that very often. My movies are usually about stripping off the make-up, getting down to the skeleton.”
He admits he had initial nerves about stepping into the showman’s shoes, a role which is worlds apart from Wall Street financier Gordon Gekko. “This is the first time I played a character that people knew. I had a lot of trepidation.” Douglas’s physical transformation into Liberace, who underwent cosmetic surgery throughout the years, has been highly commended too.
“Lee was broad-chested. One of his thighs is the same size as two of mine, so I was a little put off in terms of the physicality aspect.
“We were really blessed with talented people [on set]. In this high-definition age, hair and make-up always makes me very nervous. We were freaked out the first time we saw the masks that they used for the surgery.”
Douglas tried learning the piano but decided against it. “I asked Steven to find a number where there’s film of Liberace playing it, because I’m not a pianist and I’m not going to learn.
“We started off with a piano teacher and I said, ‘This is not going to work.’ By having it on a screen, I could watch it and practise getting the hands right by doing it over and over again.”
He has compliments for co-star Damon: “I was in awe of Matt’s courage. It’s one thing for me at my age to stretch a little bit and try different characters. But a man in the prime of his career going this route? Plus, he has to wear a white sequinned thong! That takes real guts.” Their love scenes didn’t pose an issue, either. “Knowing Matt already, you never have to go through that formal dance of introductions,” he says.
Douglas has more projects in the pipeline, including comedy Last Vegas alongside Morgan Freeman and Robert De Niro, Mike Newell’s drama Reykjavik and comedy And So It Goes, with Diane Keaton. But he won’t be forgetting Liberace in a hurry: “It was a gas. It was really a treat to have the chance to play this part.
“I’m starting over. What I went through with Liberace has given me the confidence for this next step.”
Behind the Candelabra is released in cinemas on Friday