The humorist S. J. Perelman once wrote of the glittering fifties pianist and TV star Liberace: "I suppose that essentially we looked upon him as a great gorgeous peacock who shed enchantment on our lives and then flapped off into obscurity."
That odd, lovely image could be the model for Behind the Candelabra, an HBO movie from Steven Soderbergh that airs tomorrow night after contending for the Palme d'Or in Cannes this week.
In the unlikely role of the gorgeous peacock is Michael Douglas, 68, former ladies' man and power-broking producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The China Syndrome), in a film that traces the closeted gay entertainer's five-year relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). In 1987, the year Liberace died of AIDS-related pneumonia, Douglas starred in his most definitive role, as arch-financier Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Other roles – as the object of murderous lust from Glenn Close and Sharon Stone in the thrillers Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct – reinforced his association with dark sex and power.
Vulnerability has never been his thing but then, life-changing experiences happen even to movie stars. There was an awkward moment during Tuesday's press conference, when Douglas choked up while trying to thank Soderbergh for allowing him time to recover from throat-cancer treatment in 2010.
Later, in a cabana overlooking the sea at star playground Hotel du Cap, producer Jerry Weintraub said he'd been taken by surprise. Weintraub, the motor-mouthed music manager and film producer (he wrote a memoir called When I Stop Talking You'll Know I'm Dead) is Soderbergh's connection to old show business. He knew Liberace, booked Sinatra and Elvis, and has film-producing credits including Nashville, Diner and all three of Soderbergh's Oceans movies.
"I never saw him break down before, not in public or private," he said. During the shoot, Douglas's illness "was never brought up."
Was insurance an issue?
"I don't deal with that B.S.," said Weintraub. "When I made Oh, God! with George Burns, the studio said you can't insure him. He's an 80-year-old man, though 80 doesn't look that old to me any more. I went to George's 80th birthday at his house. I also went to George's 100th birthday."
After his initial eight-week radiation and chemo treatment, Douglas lost 45 pounds and appeared gaunt at the 2011 Golden Globe awards. "As soon as we found out Michael was sick," said Soderbergh. "I said, 'If you're not in this movie, we're not making it,' and then we waited a year. Then there was a scheduling problem with Matt and we had to wait another year. When we were finally finished shooting, Michael told me he was glad we waited longer because he realized he wouldn't have been ready, physically.
"Ultimately, it worked out for me as well, because I kind of wanted this to be be my last film," said Soderbergh, alluding to the fact that he's announced Behind the Candelabra is his movie swan song.
The director also noticed a difference in Douglas's acting. "When I showed the film to David Fincher, he said, 'I've never seen Michael so completely divest himself of all the characters he's played before.' He asked me, 'Do you think it was because he got sick? Or, because the part involved such a transformation with the clothes and hair?' The truth is I don't know and I never asked because, when it's working, you don't want to tamper with whatever is working. But he seemed really liberated in a way I haven't seen before. Maybe you go through something that scary, you say, 'What do I have to lose, really?'"
Given that neither producer nor director had discussed Douglas's illness with him, there was some trepidation among the half-dozen journalists waiting to interview the actor. When he appeared, looking slight and wiry, in a pearl-grey suit over an open-necked white shirt, he did a quick "Hello," before sitting down, followed by an impression of Liberace at an AA meeting: "My name is Lee and I'm an alcoholic."
The impression turned out to be a good way of setting the confessional tone. From the first "how are you?" he seized the initiative:
"Actually – I can't believe how lucky I am, coming out of that whole cancer thing, wondering if you even had a career, and being handed this jewel. A great script, a great co-star, a director which you love and one of the best parts I've had. So my inner Liberace was …" he waved his hands in a wide-armed Liberace bow.
"What is hard to explain to people is how joyful this guy was, how much Liberace enjoyed himself. So I've got to say, 'Free at last, Lord, free at last, Great God Almighty, free at last.' I'm done with my cancer and these guys hung on long enough to do this. So there was this energy that I patched into after a couple of years of darkness."
The performance, he said, meant a lot of studying film and video to capture the stage presence of Liberace (as well as months of training to fake the piano playing) and then, with the help of people who knew the star, scaling it back:
"Lee was at his most campy onstage, and his least so when he was really angry," Douglas said.
He dismissed any notion that the intimate bedroom scenes with Matt Damon posed a special difficulty: "We read the script and knew what was coming. It was a couple of jokes about what flavour chapstick you preferred and that's about it. Kissing scenes are pretty choreographed because the camera angles have to work out. It was more about getting the passion and the tenderness."
As for the new Liberace energy, Douglas seemed determined to let it flow:
"I'm 68 now. I married Catherine [Zeta-Jones] when I was 55 and when we started a new family, which I hadn't anticipated, my priorities changed. I put my family first, my interests involved in nuclear disarmament second, and my career third. When the cancer hit, we had to settle in for a rocky ride. And, over that two years, I revived my appreciation of my vocation."
A slate of upcoming movies include a comedy, Last Vegas, with Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman:
"None of us had worked together but we had a great time, which is usually the kiss of death for a movie, but so far it has tested through the roof. And I've got another picture with Diane Keaton, directed by Rob Reiner, called And so it Goes, by the guy who wrote As Good as it Gets. And then I'm doing a kind of thriller called The Reach and my production company is flying."
Then there was a moment when someone asked him, again, how he manged to capture Liberace's mannerisms, and Douglas laughed:
"I don't know. Cause I'm a good actor – and I work my ass off."