Behind The Candelabra Book Club
The Brand: Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, by Scott Thorson with Alex Thorleifson (1988)
The Extension: Behind the Candelabra, by Steven Soderbergh (2013)
Is This A Brand Worth Extending? I must have become clear by this point that we here at Previously.TV believe it is -- that said extension is not only a brilliant conception whose execution is rendered almost immaterial by the set photos of, say, Michael Douglas thundering away on a grand piano, his hands cloaked in every diamelle west of the Sierras. The question here, really, is whether reading the book is worthwhile.
It is, at least in the out-of-print hardcover edition I had to chase down on Half.com years ago (NB: it looks to have gotten a reissue, but I can't speak to any updates or epilogues in the newer paperback/Kindle). It doesn't have a ton of pictures, but Thorson selected good ones, not just of "Lee" but of himself as he grew more and more to look like Liberace -- at Liberace's surgical behest, of course.
It's also a solid overview of Liberace's early life, a more thorough bio than you might expect from a man who probably undertook the project to pay the bills…bills he hoped a large settlement from Liberace would take care of. But the section prior to Thorson and Liberace's meeting is informative; Liberace, like Elvis Presley, had a twin who didn't survive (and weighed 13 pounds at birth; it's a wonder his mother survived). A brother alleged that Liberace touched him inappropriately during visits home. Liberace himself claimed to have had relations with skater Sonja Henie, a relationship he undertook to back a libel suit against a newspaper that alleged he was gay. It's good dirt, much of it forgotten in the decades (!) since Liberace's death, and Thorson's repeated exhortations of the gay entertainment community to depart the closet seem dated today -- but only because of the cultural references like "President Reagan." He's compassionate about Liberace's horror of exposure, and Thorleifson, despite occasional flights of overwriting (and one deeply unfortunate misspelling of "public"), conveys Thorson's continuing depth of feeling for Liberace, and the ways both men felt imprisoned by Liberace's fame.
The way the book describes Liberace, he's a paranoid horndog who's addicted to porn -- and your fun gay uncle who adores shopping and loves his dogs. You have to give credit to Thorson for portraying Liberace in a full three dimensions (and/or to Thorleifson for bringing residual bitterness under control).
With that said, Thorson is not the most reliable narrator. It's not the drug problems, which he admits to (and he's really a victim in that situation); it's not that he sued, or took the fight to the tabloids, which he also admits wasn't a great idea. But you add those things to a skim of his Wikipedia page and you get the general impression of a man nearly incapable of making good choices. Thorson spent his childhood in and out of foster care, living with half-siblings he barely knew, and when Liberace tells Thorson he loves him, having known him for approximately seventeen minutes, Thorson claims that nobody had ever said those words to him before. Thereby hangs Thorson's tale, I think -- not just the Liberace portion, either -- and you'll often get the feeling he's full of shit while also understanding that this is how he has to survive emotionally.
It's a good, fast, beachy read. It's also a sad book that made me miss Liberace a lot. I'd recommend it.
Is This An Extension Worth The Branding? Absolutely; see above. Soderbergh, Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe -- it's a slam-dunk, not least because so much of Liberace's appeal was visual. The book does a reasonable job conveying how completely insane a Liberace show looked, but there's no substitute for seeing it for yourself.
But the movie's only so long, and will necessarily elide people and incidents; if you want to take more time with the story, and get less distracted by Damon's (glorious!) feathered coif, snag the book. It's outrageous!