Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra won three Emmys on Sunday, including one for best TV movie, as British pop king Elton John sang a tribute to the flamboyant gay entertainer.
The movie – made for the small screen rather than the cinema, reportedly partly due to the frank depiction of gay sex – also took home awards for best actor Michael Douglas, who starred as Liberace, and best director Steven Soderbergh.
The film was in competition for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in May, but did not win. It is not eligible for the Oscars, because it was released on television first.
Hollywood veteran Douglas drew laughter as he accepted his award at the 65th Primetime Emmys awards show, joking with co-star Matt Damon sitting in the front row at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.
“This is a two hander. And Matt, you’re only as good as your other hand,” he told Damon, who plays Liberace’s gay lover Scott Thorson in the movie made by US cable channel Home Box Office (HBO).
Soderbergh paid tribute to the two leading actors when he picked up his director prize, saying: “No matter what we all did ... if Michael and Matt don’t show up with those performances, we don’t have a movie.”
Outrageously flashy but also a virtuoso pianist in his own right, Liberace – born Wladzio Valentino Liberace in 1919 in the US state of Wisconsin – never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality.
He died of Aids in 1987 at the age of 67, after four decades in the spotlight.
Visually, the movie is a blaze of cheesy style, from mink coats and Rolls-Royces to rhinestone jackets and the trademark candelabra that Liberace placed on his piano.
Beneath the flash, though, the film explores themes of love and trust, tinged by Liberace’s narcissism and obsession with youth, and by Thorson’s vulnerability as a child raised by foster parents.
Jerry Weintraub, producer of Behind the Candelabra, has said its frank depiction of gay characters had scared off American distributors for a big-screen movie.
“They’re not going to see it in Macon, Georgia, or in the Bible Belt, I’ll tell you that,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “But a lot of those people will watch this in their home that wouldn’t go to the theatre.”
Behind the Candelabra was released in a historic year for gay rights. Fourteen countries, as well as 13 US states, have now legalised same-sex marriage.
Damon has said he and Douglas had not hesitated about breaking with their image as hetero hunks – Damon featured in the Bourne movies, and Douglas starred in Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction.
“In terms of being in bed with Michael Douglas, I now have things in common with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close,” Damon quipped when the film was screened in Cannes in May. “We can all now go out and trade stories.”
During Sunday night’s show in Los Angeles, the pair introduced a tribute performance by Elton John – who himself was not forthcoming about his own homosexuality – to Liberace.
“This guy played a mean piano,” the British pianist said, acknowledging the enormous influence Liberace had had on his own music “and my dress sense”.
Douglas, taking the stage to accept his best actor award, gripped the Emmy statuette and said he would have to share it with Damon, who was also nominated in the same category.
“You want the bottom or the top?” he asked Damon, to gales of laughter.