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Was Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace film really ‘too gay’ for the big screen?

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Liberace opens at the Sahara with Karen Wessler on June 21, 1966.
Nevada News Bureau

The powerful sexual content of the upcoming Liberace HBO biopic "Behind the Candelabra" seems too hot for even Hollywood to handle.

In an interview published this week in the Yahoo TV column TheWrap, Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh says his upcoming HBO biographical film about the legendary showman was rejected by major film studios because it was "too gay."

Soderbergh was asking for $5 million -- a pittance for a major theatrical release from an Oscar-winning director -- and was turned back by every major studio in Hollywood.

“They said it was too gay. Everybody. This was after 'Brokeback Mountain,' by the way. Which is not as funny as this movie,” Soderbergh said in the interview conducted Friday at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us."

Soderbergh has a right to feel stunned, as the project successfully recruited a bona-fide film legend in Michael Douglas to play the lead role and one of the great contemporary actors in Matt Damon to portray Liberace’s lover and assistant, Scott Thorson, whose book provided the material for the project’s screenplay (both actors are Oscar winners, as well). Soderbergh has directed such artistically and commercially successful films as “Traffic” and “Ocean’s 11” but turned to HBO only after fanning on every significant studio that could bring the film to the big screen.

“Nobody would make it. We went to everybody in town,” he said. “… Nobody would do it.”

The film focuses on the frequently tumultuous relationship between Liberace and Thorson over a six-year period in the 1970s and ’80s. Several scenes were recorded at LVH, the former Las Vegas Hilton, where Liberace headlined during his Las Vegas heyday. One sex scene involving Douglas and Damon in the hotel’s Sky Villas was so torrid, the set was closed.

The unvarnished retelling of that relationship may have torpedoed the film’s chances, says at least one official charged with preserving Liberace’s legacy.

“Maybe if Mr. Soderbergh would not have focused so much on Lee's sex life and destructive relationship with Scott and more on his artistic accomplishments and contributions to American entertainment history, he would have had a better chance selling it to the studios,” Liberace Foundation and Museum Board of Directors Chairman Brian “Paco” Alvarez said in an e-mail message.

No air date has been set for the premiere of the movie, but Soderbergh says he’s fine with the project winding up on the risk-taking cable network.

“They're great, and they're really good at what they do, and ultimately I think more people will see it, and that's all you care about,” Soderbergh said. “Studios were going, ‘We don't know how to sell it.’ They were scared.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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