Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra
The back of a man in a long white fur jacket, bathed in a blue light.
Television release poster
Based on
Screenplay byRichard LaGravenese
Directed bySteven Soderbergh
Music byMarvin Hamlisch
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Executive producerJerry Weintraub
CinematographyPeter Andrews
EditorMary Ann Bernard
Running time118 minutes
Production companyHBO Films
BudgetUS$23 million
Original release
  • May 21, 2013 (2013-05-21) (Cannes)
  • May 26, 2013 (2013-05-26) (United States)

Behind the Candelabra is a 2013 American biographical comedy drama television film directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the 1988 book of the same name by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson. It dramatizes the last ten years in the life of pianist Liberace and the relationship that he had with Thorson.

It premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival on May 21, 2013, and competed for the Palme d'Or. It aired on HBO on May 26, 2013, and was given a cinematic release in the United Kingdom on June 7, 2013. The film received critical acclaim from television critics, including praise for the performances of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It marked the final onscreen acting role for Debbie Reynolds before her death in 2016.


In 1977, 18-year-old Scott Thorson, who works as an animal trainer for films, meets Bob Black, a Hollywood producer, in a gay bar in Los Angeles. At Black's urging, he leaves his adopted home in search of better-paying work. Black introduces Thorson to Liberace, who takes an immediate liking to the handsome younger man. Liberace invites the two backstage and then to his luxurious home in Las Vegas.

Thorson observes that one of Liberace's beloved dogs has a temporary form of blindness, and with his veterinary assistant background, informs the famous pianist that he knows how to cure the condition. After treating the dog, Thorson becomes Liberace's "assistant" at the performer's request. Thorson also becomes employed as Liberace's stage chauffeur, driving a Rolls-Royce limousine onto the stage for Liberace's grand entrances.

Thorson moves in with Liberace and becomes his lover. At this point, Thorson says that he is bisexual because he is also attracted to women. Liberace is sympathetic, informing him that he wanted and tried to love women, but was exclusively attracted to men. He relates a story of a "divine healing" in which a "messenger" informed him that God still loved him.

It gradually becomes clear that Liberace is trying to mold Thorson into a younger version of himself. He asks his plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, to transform Scott's face to more closely resemble his own and makes an unsuccessful attempt to formally adopt him. Thorson soon turns to drugs as he becomes angrier and more frustrated with Liberace trying to control him as well as Liberace's obsession to publicly hide their romance at any cost.

By 1982, Thorson's increasing drug abuse and Liberace's interest in younger men, including dancer Cary James, creates a rift that ultimately destroys their relationship. When Liberace begins visiting pornographic peep shows and suggests that they each see other people, Thorson becomes upset.

Scott Thorson retains an attorney to seek his financial share of the property by suing Liberace for over $100,000,000 in palimony. As a result, Liberace ends their formal partnership and involves himself with his most recent, and much younger, "assistant". In 1984, Thorson's palimony lawsuit starts where he gives details about his romance for five years with the entertainer, while Liberace flatly denies any sexual relationship.

Not long thereafter, in December 1986, Thorson receives a telephone call from Liberace telling him that he is very ill with what is later revealed to be AIDS and that he would like Thorson to visit him again. Thorson agrees and drives to Liberace's retreat house in Palm Springs, where he and Liberace have one last, emotional conversation. Liberace dies a few months later in February 1987. Thorson attends Liberace's funeral, in which he imagines seeing Liberace performing one last time with his traditional flamboyance, before being lifted to Heaven with a stage harness.



Liberace's rhinestone-studded Excalibur, which was used in the production

Director Steven Soderbergh first spoke with Michael Douglas about the idea of doing a Liberace film during the production of Traffic (2000), but had trouble figuring out an angle for it that would differentiate it from a traditional biopic. In the summer of 2008, Soderbergh contacted screenwriter Richard LaGravenese with the idea of adapting Scott Thorson's memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. In September 2008, the project was officially announced with Matt Damon close to signing on to play Thorson and Douglas in talks to portray Liberace.

The following year, Douglas officially signed on to play Liberace alongside Damon. The film spent several years in development while Soderbergh had difficulty securing funding, with Hollywood studios saying it was "too gay". During this time, Douglas and Damon remained adamant that they would appear in the film despite its lengthy development. Ultimately, the film was picked up by HBO Films and shot on a budget of $23 million over thirty days in 2012.

While promoting the film, Soderbergh went on to explain that this would be his last directorial effort for the time being. It is also the last film to feature a musical score by composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died on August 6, 2012.

Scenes set in Las Vegas were filmed at Zsa Zsa Gabor's mansion in Bel Air (interior and some exterior shots) and Siegfried & Roy's mansion in Las Vegas (driveway); Liberace's West Hollywood penthouse had been converted into an office space after his death, but the building's owner convinced the current occupants to temporarily relocate during filming, and the space was returned to Liberace's original design. Performances were filmed at the Las Vegas Hilton, where Liberace once had a residency. Production designer was Howard Cummings, while set decorator was Barbara Munch Cameron.

The pianos used in the film were also once owned by Liberace; one of the pianos used in the opening scenes had been purchased by Debbie Gibson at the 1988 estate sale. Michael Douglas' head was digitally composited onto the body of Philip Fortenberry for the piano playing performances. Fortenberry, who had entertained audiences at the Liberace Museum, stated the rings needed to be glued to his fingers: "These rings kept flopping around and clicking on the keys."


Critical response

The film received critical acclaim. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 94%, based on reviews from 108 film critics with an average score of 8.1 out of 10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Affectionate without sacrificing honesty, Behind the Candelabra couples award-worthy performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon with some typically sharp direction from Steven Soderbergh." Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 83 based on 30 reviews.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film 4/5 stars, saying "As a black comedy, and as a portrait of celebrity loneliness, Behind the Candelabra is very stylish and effective, and Damon and Douglas give supremely entertaining performances."


The film, shown for the first time on American television on May 26, 2013, was watched by 2.4 million US viewers. A further 1.1 million tuned in to watch the repeat immediately after, bringing viewership to 3.5 million in total. When the film debuted on HBO, it achieved the highest ratings for a television film since 2004.


Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Artios Awards Outstanding Achievement in Casting – Television Movie/Mini Series Carmen Cuba and Wittney Horton Won
California on Location Awards Independent Feature Film Caleb Duffy Won
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Steven Soderbergh Nominated
Queer Palm Nominated
Palm Dog Award Baby Boy Won
Critics' Choice Television Awards Best Movie/Miniseries Won
Best Actor in a Movie/Miniseries Matt Damon Nominated
Michael Douglas Won
Dublin Film Critics' Circle Awards Best Film 6th Place
Best Director Steven Soderbergh 4th Place
Best Actor Michael Douglas 3rd Place
Best Screenplay Richard LaGravenese 10th Place
Hollywood Post Alliance Awards Outstanding Color Grading – Television John Daro Nominated
Online Film & Television Association Awards Best Motion Picture or Miniseries Won
Best Actor in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Matt Damon Nominated
Michael Douglas Won
Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Scott Bakula Nominated
Best Direction of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Steven Soderbergh Won
Best Writing of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Richard LaGravenese Won
Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Nominated
Best Cinematography in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Costume Design in a Non-Series Won
Best Editing in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Makeup/Hairstyling in a Non-Series Won
Best Music in a Non-Series Liberace Nominated
Best New Theme Song in a Series Nominated
Best New Titles Sequence Nominated
Best Production Design in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Sound in a Non-Series Nominated
Best Visual Effects in a Non-Series Nominated
Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Miniseries or Movie Jerry Weintraub, Gregory Jacobs, Susan Ekins, and Michael Polaire Won
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie Matt Damon Nominated
Michael Douglas Won
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie Scott Bakula Nominated
Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special Steven Soderbergh Won
Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special Richard LaGravenese Nominated
Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie Howard Cummings, Patrick M. Sullivan Jr., and Barbara Munch Won
Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Carmen Cuba Won
Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews) Nominated
Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Ellen Mirojnick and Robert Q. Matthews Won
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Movie Marie Larkin, Yvette Stone, Kerrie Smith, and Kay Georgiou Won
Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries or a Movie (Non-Prosthetic) Kate Biscoe, Deborah Rutherford, Deborah La Mia Denaver,
Christine Beveridge, and Todd Kleitsch
Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or a Special Kate Biscoe, Hiroshi Yada, Jamie Kelman, Stephen Kelley,
Chrissie Beveridge, Todd Kleitsch, and Christien Tinsley
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries or a Movie Steven Soderbergh (as Mary Ann Bernard) Won
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie Dennis Towns, Larry Blake, and Thomas Vicari Won
Television Critics Association Awards Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials Won
American Cinema Editors Awards Best Edited Miniseries or Motion Picture for Television Steven Soderbergh (as Mary Ann Bernard) Won
Art Directors Guild Awards Excellence in Production Design Award – Television Movie or Mini-Series Howard Cummings, Patrick M. Sullivan Jr., Eric R. Johnson,
Karen Teneyck, Thomas Machan, John Berger, Eric Sundahl,
Greg Berry, and Barbara Munch
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Supporting Role Matt Damon Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Richard LaGravenese Nominated
Best Costume Design Ellen Mirojnick Nominated
Best Makeup and Hair Kate Biscoe and Marie Larkin Nominated
Best Production Design Howard Cummings and Barbara Munch-Cameron Nominated
Cinema Audio Society Awards Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for Television Movies and Mini-Series Dennis Towns, Larry Blake, Thomas Vicari, and Scott Curtis Won
Costume Designers Guild Awards Outstanding Made for Television Movie or Miniseries Ellen Mirojnick Won
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television and Miniseries Steven Soderbergh Won
Dorian Awards TV Drama of the Year Won
TV Performance of the Year – Actor Michael Douglas Won
LGBT TV Show of the Year Nominated
Campy TV Show of the Year Nominated
GLAAD Media Awards Outstanding TV Movie or Mini-Series Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Miniseries or Television Film Won
Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film Matt Damon Nominated
Michael Douglas Won
Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film Rob Lowe Nominated
Guild of Music Supervisors Awards Best Music Supervision in Television Long Form and Movies Evyen Klean Won
Irish Film & Television Awards International Actor Michael Douglas Nominated
Jupiter Awards Best International Actor Nominated
Location Managers Guild Awards Outstanding Achievement by a Location Professional – TV Program Caleb Duffy Nominated
London Film Critics Circle Awards Actor of the Year Michael Douglas Nominated
Technical Achievement of the Year Howard Cummings (production design) Nominated
Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Best Period and/or Character Hair Styling –
Television Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Marie Larkin and Yvette Stone Won
Best Period and/or Character Makeup –
Television Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Kate Biscoe and Deborah Rutherford Won
People's Choice Awards Favorite TV Movie/Miniseries Nominated
Producers Guild of America Awards David L. Wolper Award for Outstanding Producer of Long-Form Television Susan Ekins, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Polaire, and Jerry Weintraub Won
Satellite Awards Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Nominated
Best Actor in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television Matt Damon Nominated
Michael Douglas Won
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Matt Damon Nominated
Michael Douglas Won

See also

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