Susanne Madsen on the “Ver-sayce” costume references hidden in Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic
After glowing reviews in Cannes, Steven Soderbergh’s mesmerising HBO-produced tale of Liberace’s tempestuous relationship with his live-in boyfriend Scott Thorson gets its release in UK cinemas this week, starring a mind-blowingly amazing Michael Douglas as Liberace and an outstanding Matt Damon as Thorson. And twenty minutes into the film it’s pretty clear that Donatella Versace is going to mood board the hell out of this thing. From Liberace’s houseboy Carlucci in tight white trousers, prodding a crotch-level silver platter of sausages in Matt Damon’s face, going “pig in a blanket. You want a pig in a blanket?” to a beefcake Damon throwing temper tantrums in tiny Swarovski-encrusted Speedos, this movie is fashion gold thanks to costume designer Ellen Mirojnick.
While Mirojnick – long-time Michael Douglas collaborator and costume legend – is largely known for her coolly elegant and precisely edited offerings for Basic Instinct, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, her slightly random credit for Showgirls demonstrates she’s also quite at ease with a sparkly sequin and a “Ver-sayce” universe. In Behind the Candelabra, Mirojnick somehow manages to balance excess with restraint, underscoring the grotesquely gaudy without ever stepping into parody. This is partly because of the (topic considered) self-control she shows away from Liberace’s boogie-woogie antics, dressing off-duty Lee in a succession of caftans and robes based on archive images of Mr Showmanship lounging at home.
We enter the stage in 1977 when Liberace – hiding in plain sight in his Swarovski-studded closet, wearing his usual shy and retiring stuff – is at the height of his fame, and Michael Douglas’ eyes twinkle just as much as his glitzy lace bibbed outfits. When we later join a wide-eyed Thorson at Liberace’s ‘palatial kitsch’ Nevada domicile (played by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s home in Bel Air), Liberace is kicking back in a pair of gold slippers and a white caftan. As Douglas floats around and daintily rearranges folds in the embroidered fabric, he brings together costume and character with the subtlest, most perfectly judged movements.
All the film’s jewellery has been painstakingly replicated from the original pieces, but rather than simply copying the work of Liberace’s designer Michael Travis, Ellen Mirojnick has re-imagined the stage outfits in new (less costly) versions, like the famous pink beaded King Neptune’s cape complete with a seashell collar. Her construction of Liberace and Thorson’s characters is outstanding: like a slightly deranged Hugh Hefner, Douglas spends much of the film shuffling around in slippers and lavish silk robes while Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson morphs into a chesty blond playmate in sequinned shirts and skimpy swimwear, dripping in gold chains like another of Liberace’s gilded possessions.
Mirojnick deftly builds Thorson’s transition from farm fresh, double denim-wearing kid to Liberace’s real-life, identically dressed Ken doll – via an amazing tracksuit-wearing fat phase. The disturbing sartorial twinning is stepped up as Thorson is transformed into a warped remake of a young Liberace courtesy of heavily sedated plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz – played to creepy perfection by a cat-faced Rob Lowe. As Thorson becomes addicted to drugs and diet pills (“The California Diet”, notes a delirious Dr Startz), their seemingly mirror-like images grow increasingly distorted: a scene in a sex shop sees the couple dressed in identical floor-length lynx fur coats and white suits, but while an oblivious Liberace entertains himself with all the gleeful excitement of a teenager, Thorson sits on the floor in a pool of his own vomit.
Behind the Candelabra is almost quite gruesome viewing in places, and the whole thing has a whiff of Bret Easton Ellis’ love of letting the rot seep through the shiny surface – and there’s thankfully plenty of depth beneath the gloss created by Soderbergh and Mirojnick. Now bring on the awards for best TV costume designer. Ellen Mirojnick deserves them all.