Wladziu Valentino Liberace was a talented musician. He was famous for his campy outfits and wicked sense of humor. Scandal derailed his attempts to keep his personal life private. His sexuality had been on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis. It remained so till his death in 1987 from AIDS-related pneumonia.
The next year two TV biopics were produced. Both cover the same career milestones. But the CBS film, Liberace: Behind the Music, discusses his homosexuality while the ABC film plays coy. This dance is the most interesting part of the formulaic pictures.
Let’s look at “the gay one” in this spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Humble Beginnings
Scene One: Piano Lessons
(Liberace flies above the stage in a feathered coat.)
LIBERACE (Victor Garber): Like my entrance? Good. I’ve always loved attention.
(Flashback to Liberace playing with the Chicago Symphony.)
LIBERACE: The audience is bored with classical. I’ll mix in some boogie-woogie. Say! That could be my gimmick!
PRUDISH PIANO TEACHER: Boogie? Woogie? Disgraceful!
MAMA (Maureen Stapleton): But the audience loves him!
Scene Two: Heterosexuality
BLOWSY SINGER: Oh, why don’t cha come up and see me!
(She forces herself on him. He runs home in tears.)
CHORUS GIRL: Gosh Liberace. I’m your biggest fan! You’re bigger than Rock Hudson!
LIBERACE: I suppose I could date a
beard nice girl. Just don’t tell the tabloids.
MAMA: She told the tabloids. Stay away from girls.
LIBERACE: All right mama.
Act Two: Adversity
Scene Three: Homosexuality
(Liberace flirts with hunks by his piano shaped pool.)
LIBERACE: I’m suing the tabloids for calling me gay.
AGENT: Sure. Then stop wearing gay outfits. Dress boring.
(Liberace wears a boring suit on his TV show.)
AGENT: Your show got cancelled for being boring.
Scene Four: Mentorship
ELVIS PRESLEY: Gosh Liberace. I’m just a simple country boy.
LIBERACE: You need a look. Try my gold lamé jacket.
ELVIS PRESLEY: Gee, your makeover tips have saved my career!
Scene Five: Hospital
LIBERACE: Am I dying?
NUN HALLUCINATION: Pray to Saint Anthony.
(Liberace prays. Wakes up.)
MAMA: The dialysis machine saved your kidneys!
LIBERACE: Where’s the nun?
MAMA: What nun?
Act Three: Sunset
Scene Six: Mad About the Boy
SCOTT THORSON (A teenage twink): Gosh Liberace. I’m just a simple country boy.
LIBERACE: Be my live-in chauffer?
SCOTT THORSON: Okay. But I’ll do lotsa cocaine.
LIBERACE: Gasp! I do not approve of narcotics. Get out.
SCOTT THORSON: Are we going to mention the part where you adopted me and made me have plastic surgery?
SCOTT THORSON: Then I’ll sue you for palimony!
Scene Seven: Last Days
(Liberace is dying from AIDS related illness.)
SAINTLY NEW BOYFRIEND: Rock Hudson told the press he has AIDS.
LIBERACE: I don’t want to be remembered like that. Tell them I’m on a watermelon diet.
SAINTLY NEW BOYFRIEND: Fear not. No one will ever know your secrets.
Liberace Means Freedom
CBS aired Liberace: Behind the Music on October 9, 1988. But on October 2, ABC had aired Liberace. The screenplays are structurally similar. But Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry, Star Trek: DS9) is directed to show romantic interest in the cabaret singer and chorus girl. He still hires Scott Thorson and a Saintly Gay Assistant. But their relationships are kept off screen. The film doesn’t insist he’s straight… just discretely bisexual. When the press confronts him, he repeats an actual Liberace quote:
[I don’t] believe that entertainers should publicly air their sexual or political takes… I’ve seen careers hurt by that kind of thing. But with a name like Liberace, which stands for freedom, I’m for anything that has the letters L-I-B in it and that includes gay lib.
In 2013 Steven Soderbergh directed Behind the Candelabra. Michael Douglas played Liberace as a vile predator. 40-something Matt Damon played the teenage Thorson as a dim-witted Rocky to Liberace’s Frank n’ Furter. The film was sexually frank. But it portrayed the leads, and every queer man in their circle, as grotesque monsters. This homophobic dirge won multiple awards for the heterosexual artists.
Liberace: Behind the Music ends up being comparatively gay friendly. But all three films are dull. Whether they paint him as a gorgon, a sap, or an upstanding heterosexual, the biopic formula drains him of all color. Liberace had flaws but he was never boring.