Liberace At Home: How HBO Re-created the Pianist's Gaudy Digs
This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Last year, when the makers of HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra — screening in competition at the Cannes Film Festival — arrived in Las Vegas for filming, they came armed with not one but two 50-foot trucks filled with chandeliers. Production designer Howard Cummings and set decorator Barbara Munch Cameron commandeered “nearly every available crystal light fixture in Hollywood,” says Cameron, for the Steven Soderbergh-helmed telefilm, which airs May 26 and stars Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and Matt Damon as his lover Scott Thorson, who sued him for palimony in 1982. In the end, 100 large candelabras and chandeliers were required to achieve dazzle befitting the entertainer, who died in 1987 at age 67 of AIDS-related complications. His four-decade show business career was marked by a passion for such indulgences as a mirrored Rolls-Royce and a 16-foot white llama fur coat.
“We also swooped up every single naked David statue in Hollywood, from mini to giant,” says Cummings, who painstakingly restaged five of Liberace’s over-the-top homes, including his opulent Vegas mansion, his ’80s shiny black Los Angeles penthouse and his Palm Springs house The Cloisters, complete with a Catholic chapel and fleet of classic cars. In the film, the pianist describes his style as “palatial kitsch. I just love it.”
Two mirrored Baldwin grand pianos were required for a dueling-pianist scene, and the team was able to track down Liberace’s originals. Candelabra producer Jerry Weintraub, a friend of the late performer, persuaded the Liberace Foundation, custodians of his legacy, to loan one of them. Cameron learned that the other half of the original pair was on display at Gibson Guitar’s headquarters in Beverly Hills and persuaded the company to let her borrow it.
That piano also was used as a prop inside the L.A. pied-a-terre, the only one of Liberace’s former houses used as a location. Cummings had to have it hoisted to the penthouse, atop a five-story building at 7461 Beverly Blvd., because “there was no getting it in the elevator, which only fits two people at most,” he says. Now a private events space, the apartment features some of Liberace’s original mirrored walls. “He was a mirror fanatic,” says Cummings. In yet another stroke of luck, the current owner had photographed the entire apartment before Liberace’s furnishings were removed, allowing the production to re-create the black lacquer, animal print and chrome decor to the last detail.
The Bel-Air home of Zsa Zsa Gabor and husband Frederic Prinz von Anhalt was transformed into Liberace’s decadent Vegas residence; the couple’s wood floors were covered with baby blue carpet, their living room was decked with gold and silver wallpaper and their swim- ming pool was emptied so piano keys could be painted on the bottom. With postproduction finished, the set design team was delighted to hear Prince Frederic would not be requiring them to restore the gold and silver walls to their original state nor remove the freshly painted piano keys from his pool. “He said he loved it all,” says Cameron, “and we loved him for that.” For some, apparently, the unrestrained style of Liberace still has its charms.