Liberace, gay rights pioneer?

He never came out of the closet, but his act was subtly subversive -- and paved the way for future drag movements

Topics: LA Review of Books, liberace, AIDS, Behind the Candelabra, Radio City, Ronald Reagan,

Liberace, gay rights pioneer?
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of Books

I find it equally natural to speak of ‘Mr. Showmanship’ Liberace as if he were another person.

— Wladziu “Lee” Valentino Liberace
THE STORIES LIBERACE TOLD ABOUT HIMSELF were nothing like the one Steven Soderbergh told in HBO’s biopic Behind The Candelabra. The new film, which focuses on the relationship between the flamboyant piano-playing entertainer (Michael Douglas) and his lover and companion of five years, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), is based on Thorson’s 1988 memoir of the same name. The film adaptation, like the book, is an intimate look at a same-sex relationship, chronicling Liberace’s courtship of the much-younger Thorson, Thorson’s ensuing tenure as Liberace’s live-in lover and right-hand man, and the messy breakup in the early 80’s that resulted in a “palimony” lawsuit and much tabloid fodder before Liberace died of AIDS in February 1987. Thorson wrote his book in the wake of the ex-couple’s long, acrimonious legal battle, and his portrait of Liberace is both tender and unsparing. It reveals details of the aging entertainer’s personal life — his face lifts and penis implant, his appetite for pornography and his AIDS — that Liberace, who was famously obsessed with hiding his sexuality and his cosmetic enhancements, had been determined to keep secret. Thorson’s story is, in other words, a tell-all about an entertainer who was determined to go to the grave telling nothing.

In stark contrast to Behind The Candelabra are the three autobiographical books that Liberace published in the course of his career: Liberace: An Autobiography (1973); The Things I Love (1976); and The Wonderful Private World of Liberace (1986), whose title sounds more like a marquee heading than a memoir. All three, far from candid self-portraits, are extensions of Liberace’s stage act, presenting a theatrical version of his career path and opulent lifestyle scrubbed free of any signs of conflict or homosexuality (“‘wonderful’ it is, ‘private’ it aint,” wrote John Waters when he reviewed the third book for Vogue in 1986). Liberace brings readers on virtual tours of his many homes and shows off their “palatial kitsch” splendor (a piano-shaped swimming pool; a replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in his bedroom, with his own face added to the celestial scene); he tells about his legendary Christmas celebrations (he once spent $25,000 decorating his house); he explains his affection for his beloved mother and for the many pet dogs he called his “children” (he at one point owned 26); and he repeats signature anecdotes, like the one where he lost his virginity to a lusty older lounge singer at the age of 16. In Behind The Candelabra, Thorson gives his own version of many of these same details: the “lounge singer” was actually a Green Bay Packers lineman; Liberace had a strained relationship with his mother and siblings; the extravagant Christmas celebrations were one manifestation of a shopping addiction that would make Buzz Bissinger blanch; and the luxurious and idyllic domestic life was, in fact, a world of paranoid seclusion that left Thorson feeling like a prisoner in paradise. (Behind The Candelabra was reissued this month with a new afterword by Thorson, whose life since Liberace has been a mess of drugs, money problems and jail time.)

But if Thorson’s book exposes something closer to the “real” Liberace, and a same-sex romance that is completely absent from the entertainer’s autobiographical works, it is Liberace’s artificial self-presentation that is nevertheless more fascinating. Liberace’s gay private life — once the subject of so much speculation — was, it turns out, rather unremarkable. There are some bizarre and creepy elements of the Liberace-Thorson relationship (most notably that Liberace had Thorson undergo plastic surgery to make them look more alike), but Behind The Candelabra is primarily the story of affluent white men in what was, for all intents and purposes, a marriage: Lee and Scott build physical and emotional intimacy, they eat and sleep and work, they bicker and grow apart and, eventually, they break up. Soderbergh’s adaptation is, in that sense, in line with conventional representations of gays and lesbians in the movies and on television today (The Kids Are AlrightModern Family), albeit with sex scenes that are slightly more Game of Thrones than Glee (Soderbergh has said that his film landed at HBO because movie studios considered it “too gay”). But the film’s focus on Liberace’s gay domestic life makes it a strangely normalizing portrayal of an entertainer whose onstage self-presentation was complicated, divisive, and arguably quite subversive precisely because it wasn’t openly gay. Liberace went to great lengths to keep his private world a secret but, in the meantime, he constructed a public persona — a “wonderful private world” — that simultaneously pandered to and subverted conventional ideas of gender, sexuality, class and art.

The complexities of Liberace’s treatment of gender and sexuality on stage have not been broadly appreciated or understood. He was an enormously popular mainstream entertainer: in the period covered in the new film, he performed at the Academy Awards and at Radio City Music Hall; at earlier points in his half-century career he’d entertained the Queen of England and several U.S. presidents, and entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-paid pianist in history. But before the current film renewed public interest in his legacy, Liberace was mostly remembered (if remembered at all) for twin sets of failings: his refusal to come out of the closet or reveal that he had AIDS, and his razzle-dazzle bad taste and shortcomings as a classical musician. The former made him a scourge of the post-Stonewall gay rights movement; Thorson writes in his book, echoing the sentiments of other gay writers and activists of the time, that he felt Liberace’s denial of his homosexuality and his disease “had set the entire gay movement back a decade.” (Liberace was one of the first major celebrities to die of AIDS; the first, Rock Hudson, disclosed his illness before his death, in 1985, and became a face of the AIDS awareness movement, and a model for how accessibly “normal” a victim of the illness could be).

Liberace’s musical style, meanwhile, made him an object of scorn to many critics. They despised his mediocre technique, how he dumbed down classical music to make it more entertaining (he called it removing the “boring parts”), or mixed together classical works and popular tunes: a Rachmaninoff prelude with the theme from The Godfather, or “Bye Bye Blackbird” with a Chopin étude. And then there was his personal style — the candelabras and enormous rings and fur capes and rhinestone-encrusted everything (all gloriously replicated in Soderbergh’s film) — and the obsequious, cornball way he chatted and joked with his audience of Midwestern housewives and blue-haired ladies. “Well, look me over,” he would tell them in his nasally croon, “I didn’t get dressed like this to go unnoticed.” Liberace’s tackiness and his sexuality were sometimes conflated by critics; in 1956, he sued the Daily Mirror for libel after columnist William Connor, writing under the pen name Cassandra, called him a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-cream-covered heap of mother love.” The homophobia here is thinly veiled (Liberace won the suit), but, if you watch old footage of the showman today, the hostility toward his brand of entertainment is understandable: more than anything, Liberace’s act seemed preposterously, repellently phony. (This clip from a 1981 Las Vegas show, which features Thorson as Liberace’s chauffeur, is exemplary.)

But this phoniness — the in excelsis performance of Liberace’s act — is also the very thing that makes it so fascinating. Liberace played the role of a straight man onstage, and he outwardly conformed to the prevailing social norms of his day: he was a devout Catholic and a Reaganesque conservative (though he considered himself apolitical), and he actively cultivated his wholesome family appeal. He instinctively understood the way television served as a locus of American family and domestic values, and played into those ideals through what his biographer Darden Asbury Pyron calls the “ritualistic domesticity” of his act (he was the first TV entertainer to wink at the camera). And yet Liberace quite obviously didn’t seem like a straight man onstage: The critic David Ehrenstein, in his 1998 book Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998, wrote that Liberace’s “every word and gesture was crafted to raise the question of his sexual identity in the minds of his adoring fans, only to stave off their actually bringing it up in earnest at the last minute.” With its wigs, makeup, jewelry, and campy celebration of excess and artifice, Liberace’s act was, essentially, a drag act — a fact even he himself admitted later in his career: “My act is just that far away from being drag,” he told People magazine in 1982, “but I would never come on stage like, say, Danny La Rue.”

A few queer theorists have given serious attention to the subversive potential of Liberace’s cross-dressing and ambiguous onstage sexual identity. The Harvard professor Marjorie Garber, in her 1991 book Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety, labeled Liberace’s form of drag “unmarked” transvestism to distinguish it from clear male-to-female or female-to-male impersonators. The scholars Ivan Raykoff and Margaret Thompson Drewal have drawn parallels between Liberace’s gender border-crossings and his high-meets-low musical style. In an essay published in the 2002volume Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, Raykoff explained how the musical “paraphrase” — a version that, like Liberace’s takes on classical songs, varies from the original on which it is based — had the potential to be a “transgressive, counterhegemonic device” by disregarding prevailing musical traditions. Drewal, in her essay “The Camp Trace in Corporate America: Liberace and the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall,” analyzed Liberace’s performance of “Mack The Knife,” a song from Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, during a Radio City performance she attended. During that show, Liberace first played the song “straight,” then played it in the styles of Mozart, then Debussy, then Strauss. Drewal argues that not only did that progression deconstruct categories of taste (high vs. low, classical vs. popular), it also served as a mode of queer signification. Playing the song “straight” and then transforming it was a “stylistic cross-dress” — a way of dressing up a song in a classical costume. “This kind of identity fiddling,” she writes, “is the hallmark of drag.”

Liberace’s act, in other words, continually undermined cultural hierarchies, and called attention to the performative, socially constructed nature of gender and sexuality. And through the obvious discord between his purported straightness and the femininity of his style, Liberace came across as an ambiguous and defamiliarized “other,” even as his act revolved around familiar ideals of domesticity and family. The libelous Cassandra piece, in another cutting turn of phrase, called Liberace “the summit of sex — the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want.” Liberace’s lawyers seized upon that line, in particular, as evidence of the author’s intention to imply that their client was gay. But Cassandra’s accusation, if malicious, was also very astute: Liberace wasn’t clearly one thing or another — he created a confluence, and a confusion, of the very categories themselves.

But Liberace has mostly been unpopular among scholars and camp appreciators. To them, he was too unliberated, too openly in the service of heterosexist ideology, to qualify as truly provocative or transgressively queer, and his music seemed to degrade high culture more than it created a vibrant popular art form of its own. Kevin Kopelson, in his 1996 book Beethoven’s Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire, noted that most queer theorists had failed to acknowledge the “performativity” of gender and sexuality in Liberace’s act. But when I spoke to him recently by phone, even Kopelson seemed mostly disgusted by Liberace, and irritated by his current reemergence as an object of public attention. In Behind The Candelabra, we see Douglas’s Liberace fly, attached to strings, above the stage at Radio City. To Kopelson, that Peter Pan-like stage trick, which Liberace first used in the 1970’s, is just one example of how the entertainer created a deliberately pre-sexual, childlike stage persona that was appealingly non-threatening to his older female fans, but not at all sophisticated or transgressive to more knowing observers (more Richard Simmons than Pee-wee Herman). “He doesn’t seem to be performing his queerness ironically, self-consciously,” Kopelson told me. “It’s not playful, it’s pathological. More than a campy, effeminate adult male sexuality, he is being this nice little boy. And that appeals to his fan base, and it repulses everybody else.” When I showed footage of a Liberace performance to a friend in her 20’s who had never seen him before, she thought he seemed less pre-sexual than post-: with his furs and makeup and annoying chitchat, he struck her not as boyish but as grandmotherly. The writer and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce nicely highlighted the puzzle of Liberace’s impression upon viewers in an essay presented last year at a conference on camp: when he broke down camp performers into subcategories, LaBruce included Liberace on the lists of both “Classic Gay Camp” and “Bad Gay Camp” figures.

The point is that Liberace was not simply a gay man on stage — he was a straight man, a transvestite, a grandmother, a queer little boy. And in Soderbergh’s charming domestic drama, the tension between his queerness and his closetedness is lost, even if the intimate details of his gay life are fully — and fabulously — exposed. For a proper exploration of that tension, Soderbergh would have had to shift his focus from the bedroom to the stage.

But even if the film had devoted more time to Liberace’s public persona, it’s unlikely to have captured the unsettling effect of the real thing. Watching Behind The Candelabra, one is continuously aware of the fact of famous straight actors performing the roles of gay men. Douglas, now 68 and nearly half a century into his own career, dons all manner of nightgown and sequined suit and toupee, and coos at Damon’s fresh-faced Thorson, fully relishing the opportunity to play gay at a time when he’s likely to be celebrated for doing so. It’s a committed and humane performance, and leagues more entertaining than watching him resuscitate Gordon Gekko. But in Douglas’s skillful impersonation of a gay man, an essential piece of the story is lost: that Liberace was, throughout his career, a gay man peculiarly inept at impersonating a straight man. And it was within the confines of his awkward duplicity — both self-imposed and the product of a less tolerant time — that Liberace transmitted a difficult-to-define but unmistakable otherness into millions of American living rooms.

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