One of the more bizarre scenes in HBO's movie, "Behind the Candelabra" — and this is a movie with no lack of surreal moments — is when piano-playing superstar Liberace pulls a painting of himself off his wall, shows it to his plastic surgeon, and asks the doctor to surgically make over Liberace's live-in lover, Scott Thorson, to look just like the performer.
The doctor, Jack Startz (as played by a freakishly made-over Rob Lowe), does just that, but only after performing a face lift on Liberace (Michael Douglas) that left his face so tight that he couldn't fully close his eyes, even when he was sleeping (cue another of the movie's more bizarre scenes, as Matt Damon's Thorson tries to awaken a snoring Liberace, whose eyes make him look like he's still awake.)
Did we mention the movie is not a work of fiction? It is based on Thorson's newly rereleased 1988 memoir, "Behind the Candelabra" (Tantor Media), which details his drama-filled relationship with the late, bedazzled star.
Liberace, who was nearly 40 years older than Thorson when the then-18-year-old moved in with him, began his most elaborate round of cosmetic surgery in 1979, after he saw how he looked during an appearance on "The Tonight Show."
He and Thorson, at a happy place in their relationship, had spent a year traveling through Europe and enjoying the local cuisine at every stop. A scene in the movie shows them happily channel surfing and noshing on popcorn — both having put on a few pounds — until Liberace sees himself on TV. "I look like my father in drag!" he tells Thorson.
Liberace's hairstylist put him in touch with Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Jack Startz, who was known for his work with silicone injections, and whose clientele including many of the city's rich and famous. Startz recommended a face-lift, eye lift, and silicone injections plus a face peel after the surgery.
Then, as depicted in yet another of the movie's most memorable scenes, Liberace fetched a painting of himself and showed it to Startz, asking the doctor to make Thorson look like the painting.
Liberace decided he should get his face work done first — so that Thorson would be able to take care of him. Thorson, Startz had decided, also needed to lose a few pounds before surgery, which led to the doctor's prescription of the California Diet. It was a plan that amounted to Startz doling out written prescriptions for various drugs — pharmaceutical cocaine and amphetamines among them, Thorson writes in his book. They helped Thorson shed pounds but gain an addiction to the drugs.
Helene Ballas, Startz's office manager, recently told Allure.com that Liberace's biggest concern before his procedures was that he was going to have to remove his wig (a concern he addresses in another funny scene in the film), but both he and Thorson were unaware of just how many problems Startz himself was juggling.
Financial struggles, growing concerns about the safety and efficacy of his silicone injections, and his own drug issues would eventually lead to the end of Startz's business. In 1985, he committed suicide.
Years before he had even met with Liberace and Thorson, and dispensed the drugs that Thorson maintains led to his lifelong drug issues, Startz had gone to rehab for his own drug addictions, Ballas told Allure.com. Thorson, meanwhile, told Larry King in a 2002 interview that Startz even drank alcohol during his surgical session with Liberace.
As for the results of Startz's work on Thorson and Liberace, a nose job, a chin implant, and cheekbone work did result in the then-20-year-old Thorson resembling his lover, who wanted his "blond Adonis" to look like him because he had considered adopting the younger man. "He wanted me as his son. But at the same time, he wanted me as his lover," Thorson told King.
And though Liberace was initially pleased with his surgery results — which Thorson wrote made the performer appear 20 years younger — Liberace's eyes had changed "in appearance and function," Thorson wrote in his book. "He couldn't close his lids completely. They remained slitted open even when he struggled to keep them shut. At night, when he slept, his eyes would open slowly, and that's the way they would stay … it was odd to wake up at night and see him in bed beside me sleeping soundly … odd and a little frightening."
Today, Thorson is battling cancer and is currently incarcerated in a Reno, Nevada, jail after being charged with burglary and identity theft in February 2013. He told Larry King he had the chin implant removed more than a decade ago, but with age, he has come to resemble Liberace more than ever.
"Behind the Candelabra" premieres May 26 at 9 PM on HBO.
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