Romancing the Rhinestones: Lessons in Trust From The Costume Designer Who Transformed Michael Douglas Into Liberace

The Oscar-winning actor’s longtime costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (they first met on Fatal Attraction) explains how a foundation of trust allowed them to push boundaries on HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. Plus: The struggle that bonded them for decades.


Even when it was announced a few years ago that Michael Douglas was to play Liberace in a movie for HBO (and Matt Damon would be his much-younger lover, Scott Thorson), it was hard to imagine that it would actually happen. After all, since at least Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, Douglas has built a career playing strong, masculine men who are, if anything, morally weak. Liberace is an altogether different beast–a flamboyant, larger-than-life character whose weaknesses include feathers, diamonds, sex with younger men, and a searing narcissism.


Douglas’ longtime costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, tells Co.Create she isn’t sure that even Douglas believed the Liberace movie would happen. Amazingly, it did. Sunday night, Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh, debuts on HBO for all the world to see Catherine Zeta-Jones’s husband bedazzled and having sex with Matt Damon. As Mirojnick explains, this required a trust in her that was forged decades ago, during the filming of Fatal Attraction. But it hasn’t always been pretty.


In Behind the Candelabra, Michael Douglas wears 60 different costumes–everything from caftans and bathing suits to elaborately feathered and beaded capes, all accessorized by a handful or two of gold and diamond rings. In other words, it pushed up against Michael Douglas’s comfort zone. “This was a very big challenge, because I knew going in that Michael could go, I’ll just say X far–whatever that X was,” says Mirojnick, careful not to reveal the man’s personal boundaries. “It was a subliminal feeling of how far he could take this without it looking ridiculous or what he might need to help transform.”

And Mirojnick was under the gun. With a limited budget and very little time, the costumer, who has such movies as Starship Troopers and The Chronicles of Riddick to her credit, had eight weeks to bring to life the essence of Liberace’s life, both onstage and off. She didn’t replicate the originals; they served as inspiration. “I had to judge while doing the fittings with Michael and Matt, and the other men, what was enough, what was too much, what wasn’t enough, and so on. I actually was really pretty insecure about it most of the time,” she admits. “The odds were against me. My brain was really tired.”

Mirojnick was able to see clearly what would work and what wouldn’t work. “Michael’s trust in me could not let him fall back into something that he feels necessarily safe in, for lack of another word, but not put him in something that is totally ridiculous that he couldn’t play.”

This could have easily become another Showgirls. Funny enough, Mirojnick did the costumes for that notorious 1995 movie, too. “[For] Showgirls I went really far, and [director Paul Verhoeven] wanted it to go far. Showgirls was Showgirls because that kind of filmmaking is purposely exaggerated to be distasteful, to be honest. That was a continued theme in that film. But in this”–the Liberace movie–“there was no room for distaste. You had to take that out of your mind-set.”


That was because of director Steven Soderbergh. Unlike Showgirls, Behind the Candelabra takes its subject seriously. “We could not joke about it,” says Mirojnick. “We had to be really serious.” They couldn’t joke?! “Well, of course, we could joke about it and laugh and have a good time, but we could not take it as a joke. We had to be really seriously committed. I think subsequently you do see it in their performances; you see from the moment that the movie begins that these men are committed. They are committed 100 percent. You never feel one minute of wavering.”

She’s right. Douglas and Damon utterly inhabit their roles. “I think it’s more fulfilling in storytelling only because you can’t go too far. [We had to] be truthful to Steven Soderbergh’s intention and the story he wanted to tell and what the content of Richard LaGravenese’s script was. We must be truthful to what that vision was, which was not a campy romp.”


The trust that Mirojnick built with Douglas was forged cumulatively over many years and many movies. She says, “Our relationship is based on trust, 100 percent,” as is that between actor and director. “Steven Soderbergh asks Matt Damon and Michael Douglas to be in Behind the Candelabra–it is about trust. Both of those men felt that they were in a director’s hands that would not make them appear silly, and they could trust his instinct on how to tell this story in a way that’s about relationship and that’s not campy.”

Mirojnick has worked with Douglas more than any other actor in her career. She likens it to working with the same director. “There’s an ease that comes with working with one person. You have a shorthand. You have an ability to not second guess, but there’s an understanding of who the person is, what the person can bring across, what the body restricts, what the likes and dislikes are, what the vision is that has to come across. How does he fit into the puzzle?” Knowing all that going into a project, she says, takes a lot of the mystery out of it, whereas working with a new actor requires figuring out all those things–and most people can’t just articulate them; one has to find them and learn.

With that already in place, Mirojnick was able to spend her eight weeks on the film researching and crafting. The folks at the Liberace Foundation welcomed her, Soderbergh, and production designer Howard Cummings into what was once the Liberace Museum: “The archivists were very helpful in letting us see each and every costume that still exists, which is quite a lot of costumes. I wish that museum was still open. It is absolutely glorious to look at his work. It’s so stunning and so intricate and so layered and so textured and still in relatively good shape because they took such good care of it.”

Neptune Costume

The toughest costume to make was the Neptune costume, with a seashell neck, pictured above in sketch and as it appears on-screen in the final performance of the film. “It was based on the feeling of a costume called King Neptune that Liberace actually wore,” she says. “It looked like the man had been submerged in an underwater fantasy. It was extraordinarily elaborate and highly layered and embellished and stoned and pearled. It was quite an intimidating costume. And then he has to fly [in it]. There were four different processes of printing the seashells on six different fabrics, which then were cut and embellished and stoned and pearled, and then had to be engineered to fly, where the cables would be. . . . It was really, really difficult.” Mirojnick had to trust that she would figure out how to make it. “Some costumes are one step to the next step to the next, but this one required a lot more ingenuity and thinking about how to make some version of it.”


“I met Michael on Fatal Attraction,” Mirojnick recalls of the 1987 movie, directed by Adrian Lyne. “I don’t remember us liking each other too much.” She doesn’t elaborate except to explain the moment when that changed: “It just was one of those things,” she says. “We were in the Gulf & Western screening room, where we watched the dailies. We saw one scene and Adrian Lyne said [of Douglas], ‘He looks like Orson Welles. Ellen, how much weight did he gain?’ Well, I didn’t weigh Michael Douglas every day. I said, ‘Adrian, he didn’t gain any weight. I haven’t changed one size. He must be bloated.’ ” Then, she says, she was pressed by Lyne and producers Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing to let Douglas know that they were not pleased. “I said, ‘What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you tell him?’ ‘We can’t. You have to tell him.’ “

So a few days later, Mirjonick was in the makeup trailer when Douglas asked a group of people what they had thought of the recent dailies. “I didn’t answer,” she says. Later on, Douglas asked Mirojnick to his trailer where he pressed her for her assessment.

“‘I saw your face,” he said.

She proceeded, gingerly at first: “You really want to know?” she asked. He did. “I told him, ‘Adrian thinks you’re fat and you look like Orson Welles, so you’ve got to cut out whatever [you’re doing]. You can’t be bloated. You have to really watch it.’ ”


That moment sealed their bond. And yet, it could have easily gone the other way. “I would be insulted,” Mirojnick says, imaginging the tables turned. “But I had to be truthful. I was stupid, naïve, and truthful at the same time.”

But did Douglas really look like Orson Welles? “No,” assures Mirojnick, “he didn’t look like Orson Welles, but he looked a little rounder than he had looked the day before. That was all. There was a subtle difference and it caught our eye.” The designer then recounts that Lyne, who had previously directed 9½ Weeks and Flashdance, was particularly obsessed with fat. “He would walk around and do the pinch test on everybody. Remember that Kellogg’s pinch test? He would walk around and do that and say, ‘No excess fat!’ So when Michael appeared in one frame being a little bit too bloated, he thought Orson Welles had come to ruin his movie.”


After Fatal Attraction, Mirojnick was hired to design the costumes for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, coincidentally starring Douglas, later that year. “On Wall Street, I think that our bond became closer simply because you needed a lot of strength to go up against Oliver at that time. He was really rough to work with and really rough on the psyche. So there we were, two people who were at the beginning of what has become our careers. Michael, of course, had worked way before I did and had more of a career than I did.”

The next movie they did together was Ridley Scott’s Black Rain. “Every movie has inherent circumstances that you have to overcome,” Mirojnick explains. I remember being in a cab with Michael and Sherry [Lansing, during the shooting of Black Rain], and him saying to Sherry, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t tell me I look like Orson Welles; Ellen told me I look like Orson Welles.'” Evidently Mirojnick’s blunt manner had warmed the actor to her.” That is, in my memory, where our bond began and then we really, really bonded together to overcome Oliver Stone. It really comes down to trust. Then I would do not only movies with [Douglas], I would do movies for his company. I think he trusted that I knew what the movie needed to be, and I would serve the film and not just the [whims] of those involved. Because this is really true more than anything else: I always hold the big picture in my head. I’m not somebody who does the little pieces and then makes a big picture. I do the reverse. I keep the big picture in my head and then I do the details of it that will form the big picture.”

[Images courtesy of Claudette Barius | HBO]

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.