Back to IndieWire

The Stories Behind 7 ‘Behind The Candelabra’ Pop Culture References

The Stories Behind 7 'Behind The Candelabra' Pop Culture References

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. 

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.”

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.

4. Merle Oberon in “A Song To Remember”
Merle Oberon was an aristocratic-looking Golden Age star probably best known for her turn as Cathy to Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in William Wyler’s 1939 version of “Wuthering Heights.” However, the film to which Liberace refers as the inspiration for his famous candelabra is Charles Vidor’s “A Song To Remember,” a biopic of Polish composer and pianist Fredric Chopin (Cornel Wilde) in which Oberon plays novelist and Chopin paramour George Sand. While the film is dotted with candelabra-bedecked pianos throughout, the scene that most likely is the one referred to is of Sand carrying a lit candelabra up to a piano through a darkened room where a crowd of the Parisian elite are listening to recital they believe to be by the already acclaimed Franz Liszt. However when Sand proudly sets the candelabra atop the piano, the player is revealed to be Chopin, the crowd gasps and he goes on to fame and glory. It’s a pretty campy scene, in a pretty campy movie that now looks, in its recreation of the ornate rococo-style salons of 19th century France, to have had a direct influence on Liberace’s tastes, albeit with fewer sequins. That scene happens at about 52 minutes in, if you want to see it for yourself.

5. Jim Nabors
A glancing reference is made, if memory serves in combination with Dom Deluise, to Jim Nabors, the television, movie and variety show actor who was most famous as Gomer Pyle on both “The Andy Griffith Show,” and then later in the spin off “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” Nabors, with his distinctive baritone singing voice, captialised on his TV fame with a successful recording career and even hosted his own variety show, “The Jim Nabors Hour” between 1969 and 1971. A frequent talk show guest in later years, Nabors also took bit parts in several of his friend Burt Reynolds’ movies including “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and “Cannonball Run 2.”

Nabors was dogged by rumors about his sexuality throughout the 1970s, with one of the most persistent being that he secretly married Rock Hudson. Hudson himself addressed the rumor, saying it was the result of a joke taken too seriously, when a “couple of middle-aged homosexuals… every year give a party and invite everyone they know. It’s an engraved invitation and to make it amusing they will say ‘You are cordially invited to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.’ One year the invitation was ‘You are cordially invited to the wedding reception of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors.’” The joke gained such traction that Hudson claimed Nabors and he could no longer be friends, because they couldn’t be seen together. Both were hiding their sexuality from the public and the rumor may not have been true, but it could have threatened them both with exposure.

On a happier note, Nabors, who for the large part of his career had denied being homosexual, recently publicly married his longtime partner of 38 years, Stan Cadwallader, in Seattle, a mere month after gay marriage become legal in Washington state. They both were warmly received at the Indy 500 by fans over the weekend.

6. Rock Hudson
Hudson himself is of course referenced in “Behind the Candelabra,” or more specifically the circumstances of his death from an AIDS-related illness, that would foreshadow Liberace’s own passing just a year and a half later. But while to a modern eye it’s almost impossible to see how anyone can have not noticed that Liberace was gay, Hudson’s case was more subtle, with a significant and powerful studio system in place to ensure that their cash-cow leading man’s sexual orientation never leaked out. Indeed, Hudson was almost the archetype of heterosexual manliness in the 1950s, starring opposite that apogee of 1950s femininity, Doris Day in a series of light comedies, and his public persona was so fixed that despite persistent rumors, the post-mortem revelation came as a shattering surprise to many of his female fans.

Hudson’s death did help raise the profile of the AIDS problem, and the race to find a cure began in earnest after the increased flow of funding from charitable organisations and governmental instutions alike, but the stigma of AIDS, and its association with the taboo of homosexuality had by no means abated by the time Liberace was on his deathbed, just eighteen months later. Both Liberace and Hudson remain two of the highest profile of the disease’s early victims, and they both died closeted.

7. Jane Fonda and “On Golden Pond”
“I’m so glad she’s stopped with all that political stuff and made a nice film with her father” says Liberace to his next-beau-in-line, making small talk about the upcoming 1981 Oscars, and referring to the chances of “On Golden Pond.” In fact, Jane Fonda had acquired the rights to the film, a gentle drama about generational conflict and resolution within one family, as a vehicle for her and her father in the hopes it might improve their own strained relationship — a plan that reportedly succeeded.

As correctly predicted, apparently, by the young man’s mother, Katharine Hepburn would go on to win her fourth best actress Oscar for the film, and Jane Fonda would go on stage to collect her father’s Best Actor statue: Henry Fonda was too ill to attend and died five months later. Fonda herself, once outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnam war, during which she was controversially photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi (for the implications of which she has repeatedly apologised over the years), can be seen as the polar opposite to what Liberace believed in — himself staunchly conservative despite his flamboyant lifestyle, Liberace always maintained that an entertainer’s function was to entertain, and not to get involved in politics. His reference to Fonda’s political mellowing here seems quite in keeping with that rather reactionary position.

These are the references and nods we picked up on on our first watch, but in a film so meticulously researched and brought to life, we’re sure there are more we didn’t catch. Let us know if there’s something, or someone else mentioned that we could all do with knowing a little more about. In the meantime, here’s a link to a recipe for Liberace’s Sticky Buns

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox