From a costume design perspective Behind the Candelabra is rather unusual. It may seem like the most obvious costume film ever, with its central character’s tendency to wear the sartorial equipment of Christmas every time he performed. Yet this is not the point of costume design; it’s not there to be seen, it’s there to feel natural and quietly help tell a story. Not an easy thing to achieve when your subject is self-proclaimed ‘Mr Showmanship’ Liberace (Michael Douglas). Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick couldn’t just throw sequins at everything and hope for the best. Liberace’s extravagant attire was fantastic and funny but the man himself was no joke, and Behind the Candelabra is not a comedy. The film digs beneath his ostentatious front to reveal someone who did not really enjoy clothes at all, he hid behind them.
For Liberace’s stage costumes, Mirojnick and production designer Howard Cummings narrowed their scope to six shows. These spanned the story’s timeline of 1977-82 and featured some of Liberace’s most eye-popping ensembles. One of his best remembered is seen early on, known as the ‘Red Lasagna’. It was comprised of red paisley silk brocade suit, huge white ostrich skin cape and gold rhinestone boots.
This is simplifying the outfit incredibly; to see Douglas prancing about in Red Lasagna is like watching a glorious glitzy peacock displaying its plumage. Even with budget constraints the amount of work that Mirojnick and her team put into creating the stage wear is admirable. Corners weren’t cut but money had to be saved. Douglas’ last outfit for example, the majestic pink and aqua ‘Neptune Fantasy’ has a printed lining instead of the real seashell and borealis stones in Liberace’s actual version. However unless we had pointed that out it is unlikely you would ever know. Stage costumes are there to be enjoyed; how and why they exist should, at the time of viewing at least, be of no consequence.
Liberace at home was a different challenge for Mirojnick. Most of us knew what to expect here – lots of floor length caftans to compliment the gold embellished and marble interiors. Yet unlike the concert ensembles very few photographs of Liberace in his own time exist. Those that do are all masquerade magazine spreads; not the truth, only what Liberace wanted the world to see.
Behind the Candelabra focuses on Liberace’s relationship with his live-in lover Scott Thorsen (Matt Damon), a misguided soul whose costume journey comprises young buck cowboy to sequin swimming trunks then finally a v-neck sweater and jeans. He assimilates Liberace then is spat out like a used sequin dummy. Their time together, certainly for the first half of the film, is dazzling. It’s a heady period of sweaty sex and bugle beads punctuated by tight polyester suits and enough jewellery to fill a department store. It is only later we come to realise what a sad and lonely person Liberace actually was. He wore fakery like armour; in reality he couldn’t bear to look in the mirror.
If you liked this article, check out some of Christopher’s other writings over at Clothes on Film.
Behind the Candelabra is now available at blinkbox.