Michael Douglas on playing Liberace - the man behind the candelabra
His turn as Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s biopic has the critics raving. Michael Douglas talks about his portrayal of the camp piano man, his own brush with cancer and Hollywood’s continuing problem with gay roles
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 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. There’s a lack of privacy.”
Indeed, Michael and his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones, had to take action against a stalker some years ago. He has, in fact, passed through all of the key crises that assail the average movie star. In 1980, he had to withdraw from acting after a serious skiing accident. A decade later, he underwent rehabilitation for alcoholism and drug addiction. In Behind the Candelabra, Michael gets to deliver one of Liberace’s great trademark quips: “Too much of a good thing is . . . wonderful!”
That can hardly be Douglas’s own catchphrase today.
“It might have at one time. But certainly not any more,” he says. “Because you get a little older and a little more conservative. You don’t necessarily push yourself to the boundaries as you might have when you were younger.”
The cancer experience must also have influenced his decision to slow down.
“You emerge a different person,” he says. “The illness itself is one thing. You have to monitor your alcohol. You choose not to be around smoke. That helped with the joy in performing that Lee had. For me the joy came out of being cancer free, from being able to work again. I’m so grateful this gift had been handed to me. It’s one of the best parts I have ever had.”
At an earlier press conference, Douglas broke down when discussing his pleasure at bouncing back with Behind the Candelabra. The team was ready to make the film when he was diagnosed and (Hollywood does occasionally deal in loyalty) decided to shelve the project until he recovered. Looking at the result, one can understand why Douglas was so keen to persevere. Yet there was a time when every A-list actor would run a mile from playing a gay role.
“As actors, we earn the right to do whatever we do,” he says. “I don’t owe anybody anything. I am sure Matt feels the same way. He’s a lot braver than I am. He’s in he prime of his career.”
Now this is an interesting comment. Can it still be the case that playing a gay role puts actors in a “dangerous” position? Well, it has been reported in many places that all the major movie studios turned down Behind the Candelabra because it was “too gay”. HBO eventually took up the film for cable TV, but it will not go on theatrical release in the United States. (One hopes its appearance at Cannes and subsequent cinematic unveiling in Europe will cause those sceptical studio heads some embarrassment.)