The Liberation of Matt Damon

In the spring of 1979, I was assigned to cover the opening of the Liberace museum. As a young reporter for KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, I was a bit intimidated when the flamboyant entertainer swept into the room, his sequined cape flying, for the official opening of an over-the-top monument to recognize an over-the-top career.

Liberace introduced Scott Thorsen, the young man who was with him, as his “friend and personal assistant.” Those were the days when even people in the entertainment industry had to follow a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. Even Liberace, the beloved and masterful pianist and Vegas headliner, who reveled in sequins and swish, had to maintain an essence of plausible denial. The blue-haired ladies who loyally flocked to his shows might have been shocked to know with certainty that their Liberace was gay. We’ve come a long way, baby.

It was just officially announced that Matt Damon will need to bulk up, get a spray tan, and blond his hair to play Liberace’s lover in a new HBO biopic. Michael Douglas will play Liberace.

Jerry Weintraub, the executive producer of the project, announced it in the Hollywood Reporter saying:

“I am thrilled that we have the incomparable Michael Douglas to inhabit the role of Liberace, as well as the exceptional Matt Damon to play the pivotal part of Scott Thorson.”

Weintraub hyperbole aside, it is a match made in cinema heaven. Both of the skilled actors have the chops to morph these flamboyant roles that were a part of Vegas lore back in the late 1970s.

Behind the Candelabra is a great title, and let’s hope the script gives us some insight on both men struggling with their public-versus-private personas. Damon faces a challenge breathing life into what we always saw as a one-dimensional public personality. Though Scott clearly adored Liberace and was proud to be on the arm of an international star, he had to keep an arm’s distance in public. He looked like a boy toy, and people couldn’t help but wonder if he was just a user. I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping the movie will shed light on a relationship that was whispered about and winked at for years in Vegas circles.

Damon needs a stretch, and this will be a good one for him. The accomplished star impresses me most in roles where his character is complex, like in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and The Bourne Identity. Damon is always good at what he does, but it’s fun to see him reach for something new. Matt has an instinctive talent, and remains a humble guy. He continues to be one of Hollywood’s top stars, and I know he will give the role of Scott Thorson the right amount of sensitivity and bravado it requires.

Photo courtesy of Sara Edwards.

Back in 1993, I was having dinner with friends in Boston and met his father, Kent Damon. Kent asked if I would consider doing a story on his son Matt, who was attending Harvard but had already done some movies like Mystic Pizza, School Ties, and Geronimo. Doing it as a favor to Kent, I later headed over to the campus to interview young Matt Damon. Channel 7 wasn’t thrilled with the idea of my talking to a nobody, but I worked it into some kind of Hollywood up-and-comers story.

Needless to say, that old video with Matt has resurfaced more times then I can count on E! True Hollywood Story.

I ran into his father again a few years ago, and we laughed about that first interview in the 90’s. Kent grinned at me, and said, “Now I’m just known as Matt Damon’s father.” Be careful what you wish for!