When Steven Soderbergh asked to meet with Debbie Reynolds to chat about possibly playing Liberace’s mother, Frances, in his movie “Behind the Candelabra,” the entertainment legend prepared accordingly.
By dressing up as an old lady.
“I went into a storage closet and found this wonderful old dress my mother used to wear,” Reynolds says during a phone conversation from Los Angeles. “I picked out some shoes, a wig. I pulled my hair into a bun. I got a flat pocketbook. Oh, I was ready to meet this young director.”
Reynolds is 81 but carries an energy and spirit of a far younger person — just last year, she performed more than 42 weekends across the country. Thus, Reynolds was eager to show she could play a role that was not the “kind of boring” parts she’d been offered over the past few years.
Reynolds showed up to that meeting at Four Seasons in Los Angeles prepared to impress wearing a simple brown house dress with buttons down the front, shoes with low heels, the gray wig and that modest pocketbook.
“I looked vintage,” she says. “I had met Lee’s mother and wanted to look as much like her as possible.
And Soderbergh’s response?
“He was slightly amused at my interpretation,” she says with a laugh. “He was very quiet and let me talk. He didn’t know my background with Lee, that we were friends and got together all the time.”
Because Reynolds had met Frances, over whom Liberace famously doted, she could speak in her voice and draw upon her personal style.
“Frances was a Polish-German and had a very heavy accent,” Reynolds says, speaking the sentence in that accent. “She has a very motherly way about her and of course adored her boys (Liberace and his brother, George). I just didn’t know if I would look like her. That was my only concern.”
Reynolds has a small but important role in the film, premiering Sunday on HBO. She was friends with Liberace during his career in Las Vegas, in the days he played the Las Vegas Hilton and she headlined at the Desert Inn.
“I was the ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ and he was this huge star with a huge show,” Reynolds says. “We would meet socially, backstage, make dates and get together after our shows. We’d meet and head over to the Sands, hang out there and catch Louis Prima and Keely Smith and the guys from The Rat Pack. We were all hams in those days. Sammy Davis Jr., especially, had a lot of ham in him, and we would just spend a lot of fun time together.”
Reynolds still owns a home in Las Vegas, splitting her time between here and Los Angeles. Her son, Todd, and daughter-in-law Catherine Hickland also have a home in Las Vegas.
Reynolds has a long history in the city, as a performer and a casino operator of the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel (now the Clarion). During her friendship with Liberace, she did meet and get to know Scott Thorson, Liberace’s far-younger boyfriend and stage assistant and author of the book “Behind the Candelabra,” which is the basis for Soderbergh’s film. Reynolds remembers visiting the couple at Liberace’s famous Las Vegas mansion and asking if Thorson could take the entertainer’s dogs for a walk.
“A long walk,” as she says.
“I was not fond of him, and I didn’t like the fact that (the movie) leans so heavily on Lee’s personal life,” she says. “I would like to have seen more songs and production numbers just because Lee was one of the first single performers to create a major production. I don’t know if people today can appreciate what a huge fan base he had. He was sold out, all the time.”
Reynolds says Liberace’s homosexuality, such a painstakingly concealed matter during his life, was hardly a secret among his friends.
“Everyone knew Lee was homosexual,” she says. “On the Strip in those days, everyone knew everything about everyone. If you knew him personally, you knew it. We knew that this young boy was someone he was romantically involved with, and he had other relationships before Scott with young men he used in his act.
“But we all thought, and he thought, it was nobody’s business, and nobody got into it with him.”
As much as any star of his era, Liberace stood to suffer if his adoring public had known his sexuality.
“Those were different times, and there was a lot of prejudice against homosexuals, and Lee knew that, of course,” Reynolds says. “His audience was full of women, not men. His popularity was just beyond words, and he didn’t announce ever that he was gay. You have to remember, this was at the time Rock Hudson was marrying his (agent Henry Wilson’s) secretary to keep his lifestyle a secret. It was just a different time.”
Reynolds says she was impressed with Michael Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace, a turn many reviewers have said ranks among the great Oscar-winning actor’s best work.
“I was very pleased and happy with his performance. It’s difficult to do that voice in a natural way and not make it seem like a comic impression,” Reynolds says. “He had such a unique voice and captured that. They did a great job with the piano matching, too (with Las Vegas pianist and former Liberace Museum performer Philip Fortnenberry cast as Douglas’ body double) because Mr. Douglas is not a pianist.”
But the film’s more graphic romantic scenes were too much for Reynolds to watch.
“Some of it, I had to cover my eyes,” Reynolds says. “I do not care for films that are explicit in that way. Some scenes are strong for people who are square, and that’s me. I know that (Soderbergh) had a hard time selling the movie to a film company in the United States and why it’s on HBO.”
Reynolds says the film is a moment in time caught by a great director and cast. But the whole of Liberace, and his legacy, is not fully reflected in “Behind the Candelabra.”
“There’s just not enough of what he was known for,” she says. “He was a gentlemen, a great citizen who loved the business and loved his fans. He was always dressed up and a lot of fun and just fabulous to be with.”