Back with a bang

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.

Michael Douglas
Actor Michael Douglas at the party for the film Behind the Candelabra at the Cannes Film Festival last month. AFP Photo

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 says beating the big C has given him a new lease of life. “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.”

The idea of the Wall Street star portraying 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,” admits 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?’

While Douglas 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 1970s, 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 television show The Liberace Show made him well-known to everybody in the world.

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 the Polish-Italian entertainer 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,” he recalls. “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.” Douglas continues: “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.

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,” the actor reveals.

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. We both read the script so we skipped to what flavour lip balm we had to use,” he jokes.

Press Association / The Interview PeopleĀ 

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