Behind The Candelabra
Among the many dizzy pleasures of Steven Soderbergh’s excellent Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra" which premiered last week at Cannes and aired on HBO on Sunday (read our review) and which hopefully some of you have had the chance to catch up with, is the meticulous recreation of the period setting --- from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” to the cars, the fashions, and the unenlightened attitudes towards homosexuality, it’s a film that revels in late 70s/early 80s detail. Part of that comes from the dialogue too, with characters making often rapid-fire allusions to people and events that may have been well-known at the time, but are maybe not quite so current in our minds now.

So we’re taking a moment to run through the stories behind 7 personalities, contemporary, historical and in one case merely alleged, mentioned in passing in “Behind the Candelabra” mainly so that the next time we watch it (because it’s a film we’re definitely looking forward to seeing again) we’ll be right up to speed on all the context. 

Liberace and Sonja Henie
1. Sonja Henie
At the Cannes “Behind the Candelabra” press conference, writer Richard LaGravanese recalled how “The women in my family loved [Liberace] very much and they were the ones who told me the story about how Sonja Henie broke his heart and that’s why he was single. They believed that completely. They had no idea that he was gay.” Henie is mentioned several times in ‘Candelabra,’ as being part of the smokescreen that Liberace put up to shield his fans from knowledge of his homosexuality, but who exactly was she?

The pretty, dimpled, Norwegian Henie became a kind international sweetheart following a long period of domination in the world of competitive ladies figure skating -- between 1927 and 1936 she won ten consecutive World Championship titles, six European Championship titles and 3 Olympic golds, though some of the later of the those wins were marked by controversy around the fairness of the judging process, not to mention questions surrounding Henie’s connection to Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis. However she is certainly partially responsible for the more glamorous image that figure skating enjoys today, as she introduced dance choreography, short skirts and white boots to the scene. Retiring from skating to pursue a Hollywood movie career, she was at one point one of the highest paid actresses in the world, though her film career was based more on her skating talent than her acting (she was kind of the Esther Williams of the ice rink).

Her private life was pretty eventful too. Quite apart from her rumored long-term engagement to Liberace, which of course we all know was a sham because she was an Aries and he was a Taurus, so as if, Henie was also linked to Tyrone Power, Van Johnson and boxing legend Joe Louis. She married three times and died at just 57 in 1969. At the time, as a result of her last marriage to a Norwegian shipping magnate, she was one of the richest women in the world. In many ways she was just as a much a larger-than-life figure as Liberace, which would have made them really the perfect couple were it not for, as Liberace says with a shudder “those thighs.”

King Ludwig II
2. King Ludwig II
When Bob Black (Scott Bakula) warned Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) before they entered the “palatial kitsch” of Liberace’s mansion that Lee “thinks he’s King Ludwig the second,” the history bore in us thrilled with delight. Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm of Bavaria, often now known as “Mad King Ludwig” -- which is perhaps unfair considering he kind of comes across as among the sanest of a completely batshit royal family, reigned from 1864 till 1886. He was a noted patron of the arts, especially composer Richard Wagner, with extravagant tastes in décor and architecture, and he built several of Germany’s most iconic and well-touristed castles, including the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein.

Ludwig battled his whole life with his sexuality, trying to abide by the tenets of his Catholic faith and also do his duty as heir to a throne by producing children, but he never did marry. Later on, as a result of political machinations more than anything else, Ludwig, having grown increasingly eccentric and withdrawn, was declared insane and removed as head of the Bavarian state in 1886. The insanity accusation was easy to make stick as his brother Otto had famously suffered from mental illness from an early age, to say nothing of his aunt who was institutionalized due to her profound belief that she had swallowed a glass grand piano and would shatter if touched. Ludwig was soon after found dead under mysterious circumstances, but with the romance and mystery of a misunderstood, extravagant life, it’s easy to see why he might have appealed to Liberace. Indeed, his most famous quote was “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others” which we can almost hear Liberace, no slouch in the hiding-behind-flamboyance department, delivering.

3. The Green Bay Packer to whom Liberace allegedly lost his virginity.
No real evidence exists to support the story (repeated by Scott Thorson in his book “Behind the Candelabra”) that Liberace’s first gay experience came at the hands of a Green Bay Packer “the size of a door.” But Darden Ashbury Pyron, author of “Liberace: An American Boyalso repeats that story and found it plausible, if not provable in that Liberace was in Wausau, the town where his deflowering was said to have occurred, around the time it should have happened, and also adds that Wausau is both close enough and far enough from Green Bay to make it possible that a closeted sports star might go there in hopes of a gay encounter. However Pyron too eventually concludes that it was, more probably, simply a case of Liberace playing to his audience -- in this case Thorson -- and embellishing an anecdote for entertainment value.

This article is related to: Behind the Candelabra , Steven Soderbergh, Features, Feature