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May 23rd, 2013
12:37 PM ET

Jerry Weintraub: Liberace paved the way for Elton John, Lady Gaga, Madonna

A biopic of piano legend Liberace was not an easy sell.

Producer Jerry Weintraub had been talking about doing the movie for years with director Steven Soderbergh. When Weintraub originally brought the idea to studios, they turned it down.

"The subject matter was a little risqué for them. They were afraid of it. And nobody under 50 had heard of Liberace until we started this campaign," said Weintraub.

The campaign paid off.

"Behind the Candelabra" premiered at Cannes earlier this week, ahead of its U.S. release this Sunday on HBO. The film stars Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as Liberace's driver, confidant, and secret lover.

Watch The Lead on CNN at 4 p.m. ET for our full interview with Jerry Weintraub.

"Now we're going to get a huge audience. And our sampling has told us that it's going to be a lot of young people," said Weintraub. "And it's coming at a right time with Prop. 8, and the Supreme Court, about gay marriage."

Proposition 8 is California's voter-approved ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over Proposition 8 earlier this year.

The Liberace film deals with false images in show business. On stage, Liberace sported glittery, wild costumes, and even a rhinestone-studded grand piano. He was wildly theatrical - sometimes strapping himself to wires and flying on stage.

He was also gay, but denied it publicly until his death in 1987 at 67.

"When Liberace was on stage and was alive, people in the theatrical business that were performers could not come out and say that they were gay, because they would lose their complete audience. They would never have an audience again," said Weintraub.

Liberace's audience was almost entirely women, a fact that is addressed in the film. The piano virtuoso rocketed to stardom in the 1950s. Rock Hudson was a popular actor around the same time, and had crafted an image as a hunky leading man, often paired in movies with America's sweetheart at the time, Doris Day.

Hudson was also gay. He died of AIDS complications at 57.

"It was a different time in the world," said Weintraub.

"If Liberace would've lived now, like Elton John lives with his partner, with children, he would've been a happy guy. But he couldn't do that in those days," said Weintraub.

The legendary Hollywood producer knew Liberace - whose fame continued through the '60s, 70s, and even the early '80s - personally, beginning his career as a concert promoter. Weintraub worked with legends like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Neil Diamond. Liberace measured up to those performers, in his own way.

"He was a very flamboyant entertainer. He was Mr. Show Business, Mr. Showman. He was a showman. But he was a great pianist. And a lot of people never realized what a fantastic pianist Liberace was. But he was really a brilliant pianist," said Weintraub.

So brilliant that it took some work to mimic his talent on film.

Douglas - who Weintraub notes puts in an "extraordinary performance" - learned to play the piano, a stand-in played at times, and CGI was added in production to match Liberace's talent tickling those ivories.

"He didn't care much about the music," said Weintraub. "He cared a lot more about the flamboyance and the show of show business, which we show in the film. But he was Elton John before Elton John. He was Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga. He was Madonna before she was a thought in anybody's mind. And he was just an extraordinary showman."

Liberace's young lover, Scott Thorson, is played by Matt Damon.

Thorson is a controversial character in real life. His memoir, "Behind the Candelabra," served as the model for the film. But Thorson and Liberace parted ways bitterly, when Thorson sued him for $112 million in palimony. They settled out of court. Thorson is currently in jail for burglary and identity theft.

Weintraub said Thorson was not involved with the film.

"I bought the book. We had Richard LaGravenese adapt the book and make a screenplay out of it. It's an extraordinary screenplay. And that's what attracted Steven Soderbergh, and that's what attracted Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Marvin Hamlisch, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds," said Weintraub.

Liberace would have expected no less than a star-studded cast to recreate his dazzling, complicated life.

"Behind the Candelabra" airs  Sunday, May 26 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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  1. Irene

    I'm excited to see the movie. Growing up, I was amazed by Liberace. Over the years I picked up some of his music books, and other items, because of my interest in piano, his clothing, and how he took command of the stage. I thought he was fabulous. By the way I'm under 50.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Reply

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