Liberace's Luster
by J.A. Bernstein

It's hard to tell what the most disturbing part of the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, is: the sight of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas kissing, the ornately inscribed "L" above Liberace's bed, which is undoubtedly authentic, the use of Dan Aykroyd as a thuggish, 70's-era talent agent sporting Elton John frames, or, most hauntingly, the casting of Debbie Reynolds in the role of Liberace's mom. The latter is undoubtedly authentic, as well, in that Debbie, having married thrice in real life, feuded with Elizabeth Taylor, and cavorted through the rain with Gene Kelly, would have been as close to the real L's heart as a full-size replica of the Sphinx molded in unalloyed gold (and no, the one currently bestriding the Luxor Las Vegas is painted concrete and steel).

It's unclear what prompted the real Liberace's cravings: a childhood of neglect—parental, material, sexual; a stern Catholic upbringing; a truly awe-inspiring drive for fame and publicity, the likes of which would make any Glee-acolyte cower; or the peculiar environment of Vegas in the 70's. Bugsy Siegel built it; Frank Sinatra christened it; and Liberace draped it in gold. Were he alive today, L would be as appalled by the antics of Sheldon Adelson and other commercial developers as he was by the setting of gemstones in platinum. Expensive, yes. Durable, perhaps. And uglier to the core than that heart which he couldn't know.

Oh, to be Liberace. The film itself is gorgeous. Of course, there are only a handful of adjectives one can properly use when discussing Liberace: gorgeous, fabulous, rich… In fact, what his life attests to is the sheer power of artists—really only a couple in each generation—to seize entire swaths of the lexicon. Seurat: dot. Wilde: excess. Sartre: existence. Baudelaire: pleasure. Dante: sin. Perhaps the only common element among them is their Catholicism, which, as I've argued before, seems to be the fuel for any great art in the modern and deracinated world. One cannot violate a rule without firmly believing in it first. Richard Francis Burton, the British imperial explorer, who's perhaps the closet thing that Protestants will ever have to a Wilde, was rumored to have once told a priest, "Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue." Needless to say, Richard Burton did not believe in God. Had he, he might well have taken communion every week, much as Liberace, and would certainly have produced better art. Which is not to discount his translation of the Arabian Nights, but merely to suggest that it would have been a hell of a lot more entertaining had it included even half of his actual deeds, the likes of which did, by all accounts, contravene every rule in the Decalogue. And probably The Inferno, as well.

Back to Liberace. What's clear is that he comes out of a long and distinguished Catholic tradition, one that would perhaps reach its apex in Joyce, if not the young Sinatra, and one that was fueled by sin. It also has a peculiarly manic element to it. For every weeping chord of Chopin, one might find the exasperating, beaming, thousand-kilowatt smile of Władziu Valentino Liberace, a.k.a Lee. It's ironic but predictable that almost none of his repertoire centered on Beethoven. The simple truth, however, is that where a German might pen a paean to joy—see Schiller for the original—the Great L felt it every day, coupled with a grinding despair the likes of which no frigid Nordic could fathom (although it's worth pointing out that Beethoven was both Catholic and, by most estimates, heavily bipolar, which undoubtedly account for his art).

What's unique about Liberace, however, and makes him such a ripe subject for art is that he simply lacked any form of self-consciousness, or even self-awareness for that matter. Where Warhol prided himself on kitsch, it's not clear that Liberace even knew what the term meant. This is also where the film gets him slightly wrong. In one telling scene, Michael Douglas, a.k.a. the Big L, describes his interior design scheme to Scott, his beloved, as "palatial kitsch," and does so with a cunning grin. This is wildly improbable, not only because Liberace, as best as we know, never actually sported a grin (search the internet; you'll see; he was either moping or ecstatic, and probably even in his sleep) but also because no one who collects miniature gilded pianos with the verve and tenacity of L could possibly understand a term like kitsch. It'd be like asking F. Scott Fitzgerald to define alcoholic, or Elvis amphetamine, or Paula Deen black.

More broadly, the film resounds with black humor, particularly when L holds up a portrait of his younger self and tells a smiling plastic surgeon (portrayed by I won't say who) that this is how he wants his toy boy to look. The scene is an ingenious piece of script-writing, almost as rich as Liberace's exhortation "I want to be everything to you, Scott. I want to be father, brother, lover, best friend." The problem is both lines are delivered with a self-effacing irony that no truly manic genius could have. The simple fact is that Liberace saw nothing amusing, nor even remotely iconoclastic, about sporting white fur and riding a twenty-foot limousine on stage, much as he saw nothing incongruous between his multiple penile implants and regular attendance at church. All of which is to say that he, like any great artist, feared God—and by extension, the muses of art, as well as his consequent obscurity—much more than he did living men.

It's not coincidental that this film was released four weeks before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Gay is the new chic in Hollywood, has been for some time, and was rightfully pioneered by the most closeted homosexual this side of Rock Hudson. Indeed, my two grandmothers, like millions of American housewives, loved the Great L and, if my parents are to be believed, had not a clue of his sexual preference. "He was simply a nice boy who loved his mother," my grandmother was reported to have said.

While one might chalk this up to the so-called naivete of the Greatest Generation—they also overlooked The Camps—a better explanation, and one that Liberace would embrace, is that he simply prided himself on his art, not his sexual escapades, and defined himself by that. To say he was flaming would be like saying the Mona Lisa looks slick, or the Leaning Tower's tilted, of the Pyramid of Giza is big. His gayness was him. It was inseparable from his art, and when millions of Americans became enamored with his persona, it had less to do with his sexual proclivities or million dollar rings than their stark and unaltered combination. If anything, he personified a nihilism and an artistic release that millions of Americans—and especially the most denigrated, women—could see in themselves. My gut feeling is that both of my grandmothers knew very well what he was and saw his homosexuality, like his art itself, as entirely liberating, if not irrevocably bound. In that sense, he was less of a Mozart than a flailing Prometheus, albeit one chained to a billion-dollar, gem-studded rock.

Packingtown Review – Vol.5, Fall 2013

J. A. Bernstein is the pen name of Rob Lowe. When he isn't wooing starlets, he's pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Southern California. He would like to add that his eyelashes are real.

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