The raves keep coming for the rhinestone-encrusted Liberace biopic BEHIND THE CANDELABRA and the sets that brought his world to the screen! The Steven Soderbergh film opened Cannes Film Festival to a wildly enthusiastic response and continued on to its home run on HBO.
Soderbergh once again entrusted Production Designer Howard Cummings and Set Decorator Barbara Munch Cameron SDSA [HAYWIRE, MAGIC MIKE] with creating the visual foundation for his film. This time, there was the added twist of depicting a legendary personage…it would be the re-creation of the last 10 years of the flamboyant entertainer’s life, 1977-87, focusing on Liberace’s [Michael Douglas] lavish lifestyle as well as his stage performances and his closeted relationship with the much younger Scott Thorson [Matt Damon].
Liberace’s exuberance extended offstage as well as on. He was fond of quoting Mae West, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Cummings notes, “She said it. Liberace lived it.” Excess was his signature, along with crystals and rhinestones. “We had fun with the excess,” Munch Cameron says with a twinkle. “Liberace collected any number of things. I tried to find things in pairs because he never seemed to buy just one of anything. If there were 2, he would buy them. If there were 6, he would buy them. If he liked something, he’d buy all of that were available.”
Chandeliers and candelabras…
“100 large candelabras and chandeliers were required to achieve the amount of dazzle we needed,” she adds. For Liberace’s stage sets, she had two 50-foot trailers filled entirely with chandeliers sent to Las Vegas. “There are 8 chandeliers hanging over the stages, I think there were a dozen up in the air in Las Vegas…they were all the big ones at Omega Cinema Props. We had every single one of their large chandeliers. The key thing with Liberace is the matching, and Omega had multiples of the chandeliers. So we took those 8, and 4 of another, plus 2 really huge ones, and then 4 pairs of a different style chandelier…also, pairs and pairs of wall sconces and their 4 large standing candelabrums on gold pedestals, expensive, but phenomenal. House of Props had beautiful candelabras and candelabrums that lit up…the two hero candelabras on Liberace’s pianos were antiques from there. We got pieces from all over Hollywood, but Omega and House of Props were our main resources because of the multiples and the quality. And they both had items that Liberace had actually owned!”
“Buyer Libby Morris and I went to the same people that Liberace dealt with…as much as possible. For instance, Lester Carpet had made the original zebra-striped carpet for his penthouse in Beverly Hills. They pulled out the floor plan of the apartment and were able to give us the exact same carpet.”
Liberace had shopped at design boutique Phyllis Morris in West Hollywood, where among other objets d’art, he had purchased a large poodle lamp. With that info, Munch Cameron said she then bought every poodle statue she could find, “The bigger the better!” From Phyllis Morris, she rented a reproduction of an ornate 19th-century French piano with filigreed ormolu that she used in the re-creation of his opulent Las Vegas home.
“Liberace had an exclusive deal with Baldwin regarding pianos,” reveals Munch Cameron. “He never had to buy one! We discovered that Baldwin Piano is now owned by Gibson Guitar. The mirrored glass grand piano that Liberace had in his penthouse currently resides in the Gibson showroom at their corporate offices in Beverly Hills. They loaned us the piano, which we had to have hoisted by crane up to the penthouse, and which we were later able to send to Las Vegas to pair with a matching one (of course!) that he had used in a dueling piano scene on stage.”
“The Liberace Foundation has ownership of the companion piano and several of his others, all of which they generously loaned us for the stage scenes.”
Pianos also appear in the two Palm Springs houses. Although we only see a glimpse, the living rooms in both houses were fully dressed and included pianos, a white one in his mother’s house and burnished wood in his last home, The Cloisters.
The sets are filled with statuary, interiors and exteriors. Sculptures appear in every room and around every pool. A full-scale Hermes stands outside the bedroom window at his Las Vegas mansion. [It was also used, gilded, in MAGIC MIKE.] “That’s from Greenset,” Munch Cameron says. “We took all they had and gathered all we could from other places, and then had everything painted fresh.” She laughs, “We swooped up every single naked David statue in Hollywood, from mini to giant.”
Copies of Liberace’s portraits, with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Debbie Reynolds as his mother, were commissioned, painted by Alex Tavoularis. The Liberace Foundation holds the originals.
Las Vegas house…
Liberace described his style as “palatial kitsch”. In the film he says, “I just love it!” His Las Vegas home, 15,000 square feet, 20 rooms, was “…his interpretation of Versailles,” says Cummings. It also reflected his enchantment with King Ludwig II, the mad king of Bavaria’s, sense of décor.
The ceiling of the master suite was painted as homage to the Sistine Chapel, the bathroom an homage to himself…a painting of his head floats among keyboards and cherubim on the bathroom ceiling. Marble Grecian columns flank the stepped marble tub. There was much press during Cannes re: the tub, not always accurate. Munch Cameron clarifies, “Libby found the guy whose father made that tub for Liberace…the son still has the company. He said, ‘I have the recipe and the drawings, so I’ll just make the whole thing, with the columns and everything’…and he did!”
Liberace’s crest adorns the canopy of the Venetian four-poster bed, which is centered between two huge Baroque mirrors and two Italianate dressers serving as bedside tables. Munch Cameron recalls, “We bought the bed from Charles & Charles, but then we had the posts built up to that huge height and everything made oversized, including the custom-made bedding and all the drapery.” She adds, “Drapery foreman Bob Renna was amazing, he had to deal with a sea of draperies…it would be difficult to estimate the yards and yards of fabric we used on this production!”
The sitting area of the suite contains matching sets of crystal chandeliers, fireplace chairs and silk-upholstered daybeds. The chaises were made by Omega, as was the ottoman in the bathroom and its matching pouf in the adjoining walk-in closet. The room-sized closet has its own custom draperies [that match the pouf as well] and pairs of crystal sconces. Hanging in special niches are many of Liberace’s rhinestone and crystal-covered original costumes, on loan from the foundation.
These areas of the home were built onstage, but for much of the rest of the house, including exteriors, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Beverly Hills home was used as a stand-in, her husband Prince Frederic serving as host.
“We had the pool emptied so piano keys could be painted around the edge and the logo on the bottom,” reveals Munch Cameron. “Howard had a wall built, and we added greenery to hide the views of Capitol Records and Hollywood below…after all, this was supposed to be his home in Las Vegas! The living room became gold and silver wallpaper, and we filled the house with new draperies.” After filming, Prince Frederic did not require anything to be restored. “He said he loved it all, and we loved him for that,” she smiles.
“I just had to have Liberace’s eyelash sofas for the living room, which Omega made for us. He loved draperies and upholstery, along with mirrors and crystal, but his taste was ridiculous…he would take a $40,000 chandelier and spray-paint it gold! We think he had somebody do the penthouse, it actually had some taste…”
Beverly Hills pied-à-terre…
“In the early ‘80s, Liberace bought a 6-story brick building on Beverly Boulevard and moved into the penthouse. He still owned it when he died,” she points out. Cummings adds, “The penthouse had a black lacquer Chinese look, very 1980s. That was his city look.”
This was the only actual Liberace property the production was able to film in, and it came with an added bonus. The owner was a fan and had photographed every room in detail when he purchased it, so the BTC design and décor team were able to do an almost exact re-creation. Not easily, though! There was only a two-person elevator. Everything had to be lifted by crane to the 6th-floor deck, on which a kidney-shaped pool takes up much of the “floor-space”!
Munch Cameron remembers, “Looking at all the original pictures, I kept thinking, ‘Why is this furniture so little?’ He had tons of little pieces. It’s because he would buy something that could fit in the elevator! Otherwise he would have to hire a crane to get it up on the deck, which is what we did. In fact, we had a crane for two days. Can you imagine, the neighbors…walking their dog or trying to get to their garage, and the alleyway is blocked off because we’re craning up this jewel-encrusted grand piano! But there was no other way to get stuff up there, the camera included. They tried to put it in the elevator and the elevator wouldn’t even go up, consequently they had to repair the elevator a few times. But we actually had very, very little L&D, and nothing big was damaged.”
“Liberace owned many other homes,” says Cummings. “He didn’t invest in stocks, but he bought houses, often for other people. He fixed up ramshackle places, and he shopped and shopped, filling them up with stuff.” He bought a house in Las Vegas for Scott Thorson, as an insurance should anything happen to the significantly older Liberace, who even pursued the idea of adopting the younger man. This house had a more masculine style, with nods to Thorson’s experience as an animal handler and intent to become a veterinarian. In the film’s re-creation, a none-too-subtle water buffalo’s head punctuates a rugged stone fireplace wall, contemporary furnishings are mixed with the usual kitsch.
Liberace’s mother’s house in Palm Springs…
The house Liberace bought for his mother was aptly referred to as “The White House”, more for the color choices than the political prowess, although his mother was a profound influence throughout his life. The location used for her home was a Hearst family property, complete with a pool reminiscent of the one at Hearst Castle.
“We had every bit of period patio furniture we could find anywhere, for all of the film’s exterior sets. Then it was a matter of having the appropriate cushions made for each one,” Munch Cameron notes. “This set was Hollywood Regency style.”
The Cloisters, Liberace’s final home in Palm Springs…
A Spanish-style 1920’s house, complete with a Catholic chapel, became Liberace’s retreat and hospice. He died there of AIDs-related complications, after a lengthy, but secret, battle with the illness. The scene focuses on his oversized bed, with its custom linens made to match the heavy draperies. Munch Cameron relates, “We did a lot of work for this set, but you don’t get to see much of it in the movie, so I’m happy to publish these photos.”
Liberace’s stages & additional sets…
“The stages were a big deal,” she acknowledges, “…the chandeliers, pianos, candelabras, obviously…but also, the stage curtains! We had Dazian make a $17,000 Austrian curtain, which weighed 400 pounds and served as the backdrop for his piano. Thankfully, we were able to sell it back to Dazian when we wrapped! In the theater house, we took all of the stadium seating out and had the shop at Sony build 16 booths to match the 8 that we got from Omega.”
Additional sets included the theater backstage and dressing room, the drug dealer’s ultra ‘70s pad, Liberace’s agent/manager Seymour Heller’s [Dan Ackroyd] office, plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz’s [Rob Lowe] office suite, hospital rooms, Thorson’s ranch foster home, Thorson’s post-L apartment, a men’s sex club, adult bookstore, jewelry store, lawyers’ conference room and the memorial service chapel.
“We all worked really hard on this,” says Munch Cameron. “I had a great crew…crews, actually! I had 4 leadmen, each with their own crew: one in Las Vegas, one in Palm Springs and two in Los Angeles, but one of those was mainly a strike person and oversaw all the strikes of the whole show.”
Munch Cameron estimates that, even with a budget of $900K, “We rented probably 70% because there was so much stuff! And we got deals because we were doing so many multiples. We bought a few chandeliers that were a different style to put in the penthouse…and we bought some candelabras, just because they were there and were perfect. Of course, we had to buy the bathroom accessories, all the bedroom linens, and things like that…and they were all expensive, but you can’t cheat on those details.”
Soderbergh embraced the sets. As usual, he showed absolute confidence in the team. Munch Cameron smiles, “Working with Howard on the Soderbergh films and on projects like RENT is always a fabulous experience, but this was a set decorator’s dream.”