His turn as Liberace in Steven Soderburgh’s biopic has the critics raving. Michael Douglas tells Donald Clarke about his portrayal of the camp piano man, his own brush with cancer and Hollywood’s continuing problem with gay roles
If you’re talking to Michael Douglas about playing Liberace the wrong place to meet would be a tattered bus shelter on the outskirts of a sink estate. You need somewhere with a bit of glamour. We could not have hoped for better than the Hôtel du Cap in Antibes on the French Riviera. Some distance from Cannes, where Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra is playing in competition, the sprawling luxury location was the model for the Hôtel des Étrangers in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. A Travel Tavern it is not.
Mr Douglas joins your hard-working correspondent in a sort of luxury tent that opens onto an impossibly picturesque view of the bay. Yachts the size of frigates (literally, for all I know) jostle for space in a sea the colour of lapis lazuli.
Douglas looks every one of his 69 years. Recently recovered from throat cancer, he sports deep wrinkles set in worried skin that emphasises the absurd whiteness of his immaculate Chiclet teeth.
But he seems in very good form. Behind the Candelabra, which details the relationship between the flamboyant pianist and a naive tearaway named Scott Thorson, has just screened to ecstatic reviews. Both he and Matt Damon, who plays Thorson, have been singled out for particular praise.
“I guess I was nervous because he was a big guy, a Polack,” Douglas says. “He was barrel-chested. One thigh was the size of both of mine. His hands were huge. I’m not an impersonator. How do you capture all that?”
Very effectively as it happens. Made for the HBO television network, the film follows Thorson as he meets Liberace and, after another young man is ejected, becomes installed as chauffeur, live-in lover, secretary and surgically enhanced offspring. There is humour here. But it’s a disturbing film. Douglas’s jealous, manipulative showman employs plastic surgeons to remake Scott in his image. Further obsessive behaviour follows.
You will not need to be told that Michael is the son of the apparently indestructible Kirk Douglas. His dad and Liberace – both supernovae in the post-war years – inevitably rubbed up against one another. Did Michael ever meet Lee (as the pianist was known to pals)?
“I met him once en passant in Palm Springs at a corner,” he says. “My father was in his car and a guy came past in a Rolls Royce. I remember it was a convertible with the top down. The light was bouncing off his skin and his hair was perfect. Now I know it was a wig.” This was, he thinks, about 1956. “The nice thing about this part is that I am playing a nice guy. I don’t get to play nice guys that often. He was so generous. He was such a nice fellow.”
Now, hold on a moment. Earlier in the day, I bumped into Jerry Weintraub, producer of the film. He also spun the line that Behind the Candelabra deals with a nice guy who sometimes behaved a tad disgracefully. But the film strikes me as being unremittingly merciless in its treatment of Liberace. He moulds Scott into a plaything, then discards him without any apparent remorse. The Liberace seen in Candelabra is something of a monster.
“Well, he was when things turned,” Douglas says. “He did not like uncomfortable situations. When Scott became a drug addict, it was distasteful. He did give him a fortune in jewellery. But he reneged on the house he bought Scott. He was litigious. But we know enough guys who like young blonde bimbo girls. They know what they are getting into. They also get gifts and so on. But there’s always a payoff.”
Douglas knows about the ups and downs of the business. The son of Kirk’s first wife, Dina Dill (also still with us), he grew up shouldering a terrifying weight of expectation. But he was also primed for the many disappointments that darken life in show business. Happily, there have not been too many of those. As long ago as 1975, he won an Oscar as producer of One Douglas with Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra; age 25 on the set of Adam at Six AM; with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and kids Dylan and Carys at Universal Orlando last November Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A long running part in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco led on to big-league movie stardom in the 1980s and 1990s with such hits as Wall Street, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. Nobody is better at playing untrustworthy creeps.
“That’s the biggest advantage of being second-generation,” he says. “My father was a movie star. So I do think of it as a business. There are wonderful benefits. There is none of that looking at the business through a quartz glass. I don’t know anything else. The thing that’s changed most is probably the digital press: electronic cameras, phones and so on.