"Palatial kitsch" is how Michael Douglas, playing Liberace in "Behind the Candelabra," describes his extravagant home to his new lover Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. Though Douglas's and Damon's acting grounds the film, which premiered on HBO Sunday, Liberace's lavish lifestyle certainly plays a supporting role.
And lucky for the film's production team, the real-life Liberace left them plenty to work with.
"He was so big into self promotion," says Howard Cummings, the film's production designer. "His life was also part of what his art was — hence all the fabulous costumes, jewelry, and that also extended to the types of homes he had."
Cummings and his team used many of Liberace's actual belongings, both as models and in the film. The contents of a now closed museum once run by the Liberace Foundation provided a number of the star's originals to "Behind the Candelabra," including his performance pianos and the candelabras that adorned them.
"This is such a wealth of things," thought Cummings when he visited the museum right before it closed in 2010. "If we could only convince them to cooperate, which was a little challenging given the nature of the story we were telling."
But they agreed to help, as did a number of other people and companies with connections to Liberace, including the governor of Nevada who gave the production team access to the objects he purchased at a Liberace estate sale.
"There was a huge amount of serendipity," says Cummings. "We sort of had this great luck, it was like the spirit of Liberace would pop up and help me."
Much of "Behind the Candelabra" takes place in Liberace's homes in Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Los Angeles. "He didn't invest in stocks and bonds. He bought property and then he sold them full of what he considered to be beautiful things," says Cummings.
"Instead of buying a big fancy house, what he did, he went into a sort of lower middle class neighborhood and bought three ranch houses and he put them together and throw a French mansard roof on the top of it and called it Versailles."
Liberace's abandoned Las Vegas home still exists, so Cummings's team convinced the bank to let them take a look at the place since much of its original layout is still intact. Because a halfway house now across the street made filming complicated, they ultimately used Zsa Zsa Gabor's Bel Air home for interior shots, while Siegfried and Roy's house was used for driveway scenes.
Meanwhile, Liberace's West Hollywood penthouse had been converted into an office building. The building owner was a huge Liberace fan and was thrilled when he heard about the film. "He convinced the marketing company to move to a separate floor so we could restore it back to what it was," says Cummings.
Liberace did a number of promotional videos and interviews in his homes, so Cummings had plenty of footage to help him recreate their decor. The Liberace Museum had catalogs of things sold at Liberace's estate sale and Cummings was able to find a some of his original belongings. "A lot of times, we got to put the exact objects where they had lived," he says.
Liberace had a number of self portraits decorating his homes (including a Sistine Chapel-like ceiling mural that is still intact at the original home). "I thought it was the height of vanity that in your bedroom you would have portraits of you everywhere," says Cummings. As copyright issues made exact replicas a challenge, his team reinterpreted the original portraits, but in the likeness of Michael Douglas.
"From the TV specials, I could see how the shows were run, and we tried to be pretty faithful to them," says Cummings. All of the pianos Michael Douglas plays were used by Liberace. For the dueling piano sequence in the film's beginning, the production team found the second piano in the Baldwin showroom in Los Angeles; pop star Debbie Gibson had apparently bought it from the Liberace estate.
The fur Douglas wears is a replica of the $300,000 original, also held by the museum, that was lined in $100,000 worth of crystals and sequins. "[The original] was super heavy. I don't know how Liberace did it, honestly," says Cummings. "Liberace might have worn it for a two hour show but Michael Douglas could literally be in the same costumes for 10 to 12 hours. There was no way to use that actual real costumes"
The show scenes were filmed at the LVH in Las Vegas, as it had a large enough stage for the Rolls Royce Liberace drives onto the stage. Coincidentally LVH was also once the Las Vegas Hilton where Liberace actually performed. The current seating was ripped up and replaced with the dinner theater seating Liberace often performed to. The fountain performance sequence – during which Matt Damon's character undergoes plastic surgery – was a staple of Liberace's show, and the Cummings's team worked with the grandson of the man who designed the original shows to recreate the effect.
Throughout the film, Liberace showers Scott with jewelry. The Liberace Museum had much of Liberace's actual collection. "They were very distinctive, there were things made out of roman coins and there were candelabra rings," says Cummings.
They didn't use the original items, but made copies to be sized for Douglas and Damon. "When those guys put the jewelry on you could just see them transform," says Cummings.