Liberace: Behind the Candelabra

Author: Richard LaGravenese
Genre: Biography/Drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 7
Writer’s Potential: 6

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Logline:

In the later years of his life, Liberace enters into a tumultuous long-term affair with a younger man.

Synopsis:

In February 1987, SCOTT THORSON (late 20s) attempts to get into Liberace’s media-circus funeral. A security guard refuses, stating that Liberace’s not on his list. Scott decides to tell his story to a GHOST WRITER for two reasons: he’s tired of people not knowing the truth about who Liberace was, and because he needs the money. Heavily addicted to cocaine, Scott lives in a dumpy Los Angeles apartment, making ends meet as a courier. Scott’s story begins in 1977, when a more youthful and energetic Scott met Liberace, known to his friends as LEE, (late 50s) backstage at his Las Vegas lounge show. Scott and mutual friend BOB are enthralled by Lee’s performance, and they’re shocked and amused that the mostly-female audience doesn’t realize Lee is gay. Backstage, Bob introduces Scott to Lee. Scott’s initially shocked first by Lee’s heavy makeup and then by the presence of Lee’s surly boyfriend, JERRY. Talkative and self-obsessed, Lee chats with Bob about himself, never taking his eyes off Scott. This makes Scott uncomfortable, but Bob convinces him to meet Lee the following day at one of his mansions.

Scott, who works for a veterinarian, immediately identifies an illness in Lee’s dog and offers to bring him some medicine. Lee is thrilled. He gives Scott his personal number. Lee gives Scott a tour of the mansion, which he finds very impressive. After awhile, Lee finally asks Scott about himself. Scott tells Lee he has little family, as he and his siblings were split up and put into the foster-care system as children. Lee is sympathetic. Scott doesn’t like Lee, so he returns to L.A. and doesn’t bother calling him. After a few weeks, Scott gets frustrated with how little he has, so he reluctantly decides to call Lee, who’s ecstastic and immediately invites Scott to visit him in Las Vegas, at Lee’s expense. Scott awkwardly accompanies Lee into his Jacuzzi, where Lee complains about Jerry, saying he’s “created a monster” and that Jerry has started drinking and threatening to expose Lee’s lifestyle if Lee doesn’t give him “a piece of the action.” Lee decides Scott is a compassionate listener and decides he needs a “companion.” He hires Scott on the spot and agrees to pay his expenses. In voiceover, Scott explains to the Ghost Writer that Lee never turned him on, and they only connected through mutual loneliness, but Scott was willing to put up with Lee because of the pay and because he assumed Lee lacked a sex drive.

Scott quickly finds out he assumed incorrectly. Lee had an impotency problem that he fixed with a silicone implant that leaves him semi-erect all the time. Lee is insatiable, but Scott — despite being an admitted bisexual — finds him disgusting. He initially refuses sex with Lee but quickly feels compelled to give in. Before long, Liberace invites him to live in one of his Las Vegas mansions. He sets Scott up with all the same clothes and jewelry that made Lee famous, and even incorporates Scott into his live act — having him drive a real Rolls Royce onto the stage and open the door for Lee. In 1987, the Ghost Writer stops Scott to ask what happened to Jerry. Scott brings up Lee’s longtime manager/agent, SEYMOUR (mid-50s), who forced Jerry out of the house when Lee wasn’t around and gave him a mansion to keep him quiet about Lee’s lifestyle. Still in 1987, Scott receives a phone call that seems to agitate him for unknown reasons.

Scott explains that Lee was a firm believer in the value of real estate, and he forced Scott to buy a house with his initial earnings. Scott describes the many investments Lee made: his Las Vegas mansion, his Hollywood Hills mansion, his Lake Tahoe home, a 32-room hotel in Palm Springs, and a five-story building in Beverly Hills (in which Lee built a penthouse for himself and rented the other four floors as office space). Scott and Lee spend most of their time in Lee’s Las Vegas mansion. Before long, Scott finds he can no longer tolerate the poor treatment from Lee’s staff, who see him as a fling. Even after Lee browbeats his staff into cutting him some slack, Lee’s embittered houseboy, CARLUCCI, explains to Scott that their relationship won’t end well: eventually, Lee will tire of Scott and have Seymour send him away, just as he has with all his other boyfriends. Because the staff refuses to adjust, Scott and Lee adjust: they move into Scott’s modest home, so they can be alone. Lee enjoys that the smaller house allows him to do domestic duties he usually missed out on. Scott asks Lee if they should get a piano for the house. Lee gets upset, telling Scott the story of his mother forcing him to practice endlessly as a child, convinced that he — more than any of his other siblings — would be a concert pianist. Trying to make his mother happy, he gave it ago, and although the critics responded favorably, they weren’t blown away, so he returned to saloons, which made him happy. But Lee has had enough practicing for a lifetime. The talk of Lee’s mother turns to his father, for whom Lee has no respect because he abandoned the family at a young age. Lee turned to religion, and to this day he’s a devout Catholic. Scott’s surprised, because of the Catholic attitude about homosexuality. Lee explains that, during a hospital stay in which he almost died, he had a vision of a nun watching over him, and then he started to get better. It convinced him that God is protecting him and that the Church’s stance on homosexuality is flawed.

While having sex, Lee attempts to force Scott to take some poppers. Scott resists; he doesn’t like drugs. In 1987, Scott receives a phone call from the same person. This time, he allows his answering machine to pick it up. It’s a hostile person who may or may not be a cop. Scott unplugs the phone and continues the story. He talks about two of Lee’s friends, FRED and FREDDY, a gay couple who had been together for 25 years. After meeting them, Scott decides he wants their relationship to emulate theirs. By 1979, Scott and Lee are fat and happy together — until Lee sees his appearance on The Tonight Show and sees how old and fat he looks. Aghast, he immediately calls a plastic surgeon, DR. JACK STARTZ, to make Lee look younger and to get Scott on a diet. Startz describes an elaborate series of silicone injections to help mold and shape Lee’s face into something much younger. Lee laments not knowing Startz sooner, because he always wanted to be a movie star, but he didn’t have the face for it, so his movie career dwindled after only a few flops. Lee surprises Scott by telling Startz he wants Scott — only 19 at this point — to have a facelift to make him look younger. When Startz asks what he has in mind, Lee brings Startz a portrait of himself.

In 1987, the Ghost Writer asks Scott why he would go through with something like that. Scott says he has always been self-conscious about his looks, and he was sort of flattered that Lee wanted Scott to look like him. Scott also confesses that he’d become extremely dependent on Lee’s wealth and the lifestyle to which he’d grown accustomed. Back in 1979, Startz puts Lee under the knife and starts Scott on “the California Diet,” which consists of pharmaceutical cocaine and amphetamines to suppress his appetite. He does lose weight, so he decides to stay on the “diet” and lose more. Before Scott goes under the knife, Startz gives him a number of prescriptions for his surgical recovery, in addition to continuing his “diet” prescriptions. Scott asks Startz to give him a chin dimple. Fifty pounds lighter and looking eerily like a blond Liberace, Scott is happy with the new look. He’s also happy with the cocaine, to which he’s become addicted.

Scott grows annoyed with Lee’s hermit-like existence and starts to relish his brief times alone from him — during Lee’s performances and his between-show nap. Wandering around a casino alone, Scott’s shocked when an autograph-seeker thinks he’s Liberace’s son. Some time later, Lee and Scott get into a vicious argument about Lee’s lifestyle versus what Scott wants. Scott wants a break, which horribly offends Lee. Lee thinks Scott’s head is all turned around because of the drugs. He demands that Scott stop using. He also wants to live his own life, return to veterinary school, and carve out his own career. He angrily mentions the woman who believed Scott was Lee’s son. Lee instantly transforms, proud and joyful. Some time later, they consult a lawyer about Lee adopting Scott. Craving more drugs but lacking money and support from Lee, Scott begins trading jewelry to Startz for more cocaine. Startz is more than willing, insisting to Scott that cocaine is not addictive. In voiceover, Scott mentions he heard Startz committed suicide, which makes him glad. Scott accompanies Lee on a tour of Europe, and in voiceover he confesses that this was the happiest time in their relationship. They tour castles, visit sex clubs, etc. Scott mentions Lee’s sex fixation. He seemed fascinated by kinks and became obsessed with gay porn, which disgusted Scott. Once, while watching porn, Lee proposes a threesome to Scott, who’s disgusted. This turns into another argument.

Lee’s mother, FRANCES, becomes disillusioned with her Palm Springs rest home. She wants to be closer to Lee. He restores an old mansion for her to use. In 1987, Scott asks the Ghost Writer when the book will come out and how much money he’ll see from it. He’s desperate to finish it. In 1980, Frances dies. Scott’s amazed by Lee’s ability to deal with it. Lee admits that he feels free. Some time later, Lee drags Scott into a porn shop, against Scott’s will. Lee goes into a booth in the back that has a glory hole. A combination of horror and drug-related illness sweeps over Scott, and he vomits. Angry, Lee drags him out of the store. The next morning, Scott finds himself on the couch. He confronts Lee about the stupidity of such a huge, recognizable star doing what he did, but Lee’s angry because of Scott’s drug abuse. Cut off from Startz, Scott ingratiates himself on a club owner and drug dealer known only as MR. Y, an old friend of Lee’s who provides Scott with as much cocaine as he needs. As he did with Startz, Scott trades jewels for drugs. Scott has decided to become a songwriter, but he’s too embarrassed about his music to let Lee hear any of it. Lee drops a bombshell: he wants them to have an open relationship. Immediately thereafter, Lee is livid to hear Scott messed around with a record prodcuer in L.A. Lee cancels the “open relationship.”

While working in Lee’s show, Scott realizes Lee has hired a group of young singers. Among them is CARY JAMES (18 and blond). Scott watches Lee watching Cary, captivated. Scott knows he’s being replaced. He and Lee argue about it. Lee initially tries to deny it, but Scott catches him in a lie, which confirms his suspicions. Soon after, Lee is thrilled that one of his childhood dreams is coming true: he will get to perform a medley of Oscar-nominated scores and present the award. Scott’s supportive but flighty. He takes a gold chain to L.A. and goes to Mr. Y’s house. Mr. Y’s sympathetic about Scott’s relationship problems. Scott is both terrified and angry about losing Lee — terrified because he needs the financial support, angry because he gave up his own face for this man. Mr. Y convinces Scott that, legally, Lee must take care of him. Scott returns to Lee and seethes at the sight of him flirting with Cary backstage. Scott learns his foster mother died and returns to L.A. for the funeral. Meanwhile, Lee has sex with Cary. When Scott returns to Vegas, the spotless room clues him in to what happened. He trashes Lee’s bedroom, then leaves. He goes back to L.A. and moves into Lee’s Beverly Hills penthouse.

Scott goes on a long bender with Mr. Y, vowing not to call Lee. Scott finds out through third parties that Lee wants the penthouse to stay in for the Oscars. Scott’s enraged, wondering why Lee doesn’t just stay in a hotel. Seymour charges into the building, announcing to Lee’s staff that Scott has been dropped from Lee’s payroll and has been doing drugs in the penthouse for hours. He brings security guards in to drag Scott out of the penthouse and take him to a hospital. Scott demands to talk to Lee, but Seymour refuses. Scott gets belligerent, refusing to let the security guards take him. Soon enough, Scott calls Mr. Y, who brings his own security force. After a standoff, Mr. Y and his team get Scott out of there. Seymour warns Scott not to return to Nevada. In voiceover, Scott explains that the same night Seymour returned to Lee in Las Vegas, Lee brought home two young French boys to have his threesome, and he didn’t ask about Scott.

Mr. Y takes Scott to a lawyer, who suggests that Lee keeping Scott from his property is illegal. They quickly work out a deal for some money, some of his cars, some of his dogs, and all of his other personal belongings. Scott must also sell his house and his remaining cars to Lee. He also must not file any other suits against Lee in the future. Scott thinks it’s a bum deal, but he has nothing else. He has to sign. When Scott returns Las Vegas to collect his things, Lee refuses to see him. Scott notices some of his belongings are missing; Seymour refuses to admit this. Enraged that Lee has broken their agreement, Scott decides to break it, too: he files a $113 million lawsuit against Lee. Ultimately, Scott settles for a small amount out of court and Lee can continue to deny his homosexuality, painting Scott as a villain in the press. Scott gets his courier job and his ratty apartment and doesn’t hear from Lee for four years.

Out of the blue, Lee calls Scott one night in 1986, apologizing for everything that happened, wanting to make sure everything’s okay. Lee’s in ill health. He invites Scott to his Palm Springs hotel, where Scott finds Lee gaunt and bed-ridden, clearly dying of AIDS. He wants to see Scott to make sure, with his own eyes, that he’s okay. Lee also wants to know if he made Scott happy. Scott says yes. In February of 1987, Lee’s doctor announces that he died of cardiac arrest. In a surprising move, the Riverside County coroner disputes the death certificate, insisting on an autopsy. The coroner announces that Lee did, indeed, die from complications arising from AIDS. Scott returns from Lee’s memorial service complaining to the Ghost Writer about what a poor job they did — a bunch of people who barely knew the man celebrating a life they knew nothing about. At some point later, the Ghost Writer arrives at Scott’s apartment for a further interview, but Scott doesn’t answer. He pushes open the unlocked door and finds the apartment devoid of Scott’s belongings, but the disarray suggests he left in a hurry.

Titles explain that Scott became a key witness in the Wonderland murders and was placed into the Witness Protection Program, and that Scott never read the Ghost Writer’s completed book. The script ends with the decadent memorial service, as mourners listening to Liberace sing. Suddenly, out of a jewel-encrusted coffin, Lee appears, singing. Scott is there, and he can’t help but admire the showmanship. After the song, Lee takes his final bow.

Comments:

Rather than painting the broad strokes of Liberace’s entire life, Behind the Candelabra attempts to give an understanding of the man by showing only the last 10 years of his life. The story and the characters are fairly interesting, but it begins to suffer when too many redundant arguments between Liberace and his lover, Scott, clash with too much on-the-nose dialogue. As written, it merits a consider.

The story focuses more on Scott than it does on Liberace. The first act concentrates on their first meeting and whirlwind courtship, painting an unvarnished portrait of Scott as a deeply depressed loner who has long craved the attention Liberace finally provides. In the second act, Scott allows himself to settle into a relationship with a man he doesn’t seem to like much on a personal level — he simply likes the attention and the financial freedom. This makes their early dynamic very offbeat and strangely compelling. However, once Scott gets addicted to cocaine and spins out, far too much time is spent on their arguments about sex. Despite Liberace’s outlandish behavior, the redundant scenes grow tiresome.

The third act has some effective individual scenes — particularly Scott’s pathetic ejection from Liberace’s Beverly Hills penthouse — but overall, it loses focus on the story of Scott and Liberace, instead emphasizing the offscreen death and the political ordeal surrounding his autopsy. The final scene of Liberace’s pseudo-ghost performance bringing him back to Scott is somewhat poignant, although it does not qualify as a satisfying resolution to the messy third act.

Although this is allegedly a biopic of Liberace, the man himself remains somewhat of an enigma. It’s strange that a character who talks about himself constantly — primarily in on-the-nose soliloquies that stop the narrative in its tracks — remains at arm’s length throughout the script. Part of this might stem from telling the story from Scott’s point of view, but it seems more the result of trying too hard to show the events in Liberace’s life rather than what truly makes him tick. The script focuses on lurid details of his life, including plastic surgery and odd sexual peccadilloes, but the writer portrays these events without indicating why Liberace behaves this way or how these particular events shape him as a person.

Thanks to extensive voiceover narration, what makes Scott tick is much clearer: depression and cocaine. He’s not portrayed with a huge amount of sympathy, but Scott is an extremely complex, well-drawn character, bordering on tragic. Ultimately, the choices he makes throughout the script ruin his life. However, his role in the Wonderland murder trial seems like a significant moment of his life that’s only hinted at until an onscreen title at the end explains his mysterious disappearance into the Witness Protection Program. Haphazardly tossing out this new information in the last couple of pages almost redefines the character, and it feels like a cheat that the writer only alludes to Scott’s involvement in passing.

Although the script is flawed, the roles of Scott and Liberace are meaty. Exceptional actors under skilled direction should bring something to the on-the-nose dialogue and redundant scenes that makes the finished film electrifying instead of tedious.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 28, 2009 4:27 PM