Liberace once took a poop in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in full view of staff and guests. Quelle horreur! Naturally I made frantic excuses for him. After all, he was middle-aged at the time and starting to get a little confused. It was, nonetheless, an acutely embarrassing episode and not one that I would ever care to repeat.
When I say Liberace, I am referring, you will be enormously relieved to hear, to Liberace my ancient Norwich terrier, as opposed to the deceased be-sequined entertainer, the tawdry details of whose private life are about to be unfurled Sunday in the HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra.
This incredible movie—it’s based on the tell-all by Liberace’s former lover, the currently incarcerated Scott Thorson—is the don’t-miss of the decade. It is Showgirls plus Casino times GAY. It is so über-gay that while watching it, I, the person who once topped Time Out’s list of the gayest people in New York City, started to feel like Charles Bronson by comparison. This two-hour drama is jampacked with bejeweled Speedos, bristling toupees, antiques, mantiques, yapping poodles, houseboys, and twinkies.
Despite the ormolu gewgaws and the polyester Nik Nik shirts, Behind the Candelabra soars effortlessly above the perils of campy kitsch. Director Steven Soderbergh has pulled off a miracle: a touching and powerful movie that is nonetheless filled with sumptuous satin caftans, ostrich-feather-trimmed capes, and crystal-encrusted pianos.
Full credit for the emotional gravitas must be given to the male leads. Loath though I am to give compliments to actors—they already get plenty of hot air blasted up their dirndl skirts and trouser legs—in this instance I must. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are magnifique. Despite their pancake maquillage, matching facelifts, and “budgie smuggler” bathing suits, they somehow manage to convey the pain and complexity of their freaky fur-clad cohabitation.
It’s good to be reminded that Liberace was gay back when gay was a felony and a mental illness. As his fame grew, he was obliged to find ever more elaborate ways to elude detection. He sued people. He told them he was in love with ice skater Sonja Henie. By the time he met twinkie Scott, he was hiding his gayness in plain sight beneath an ocean of white fox and rhinestones. Opulence trumps everything. Why would you give two shits about my sexual orientation when I am obviously as rich as Croesus is the line of thinking. (Prior to coming out, Elton John deployed a similar strategy.)
While the blinding flashiness of his performances and his lifestyle distracted from probing questions about his private life, the threat of exposure was constant. This couple lived under gay house arrest. As a result, the relationship between Scott and Lee (his nickname) plays out in a world of bored poolside luxury, alleviated by occasional brunches with Charo, Dom DeLuise, and Jim Nabors. Douglas and Damon skillfully inhabit this fragile, tacky prison. Their full-hearted performances—I cried during the AIDS deathbed scene—are so convincing as to be Oscar-smelly.
I had toyed with bringing my Liberace to the screening at HBO HQ—I envisioned snapping a haunting meta-portrait of him “watching himself” on-screen—but when I saw how full-on gay the movie was, I was glad I left him at home. Our Lib, I should explain, has always resisted comparisons with his eponym. A pugnacious, butch little critter, he refuses to wear capes or jeweled collars and has never shown the slightest interest in candelabras or his own sex. Our pet is a rampant, heterosexual Archie Bunker who regards any foppishness with a cold, judgmental eye. If he had accompanied me to the screening, I know he would have expressed his disdain, most likely on the marble floor of the HBO lobby.
So why, given his unremittingly anti-gay vibe, did we elect to name the little feller Liberace? Simple: My chauffeur and I—oops, I mean my husband and I—have a deep affection for Mr. Showmanship and have always felt an obligation to keep that flame alive. Unlike Elvis and Marilyn and other entertainment icons, Liberace’s legacy needs all the help it can get. Sadly, the younger generation has no idea who he was or what he represented. Concerned that the magic of Liberace might disappear into the dry ice of time, Jonathan and I dutifully named our dog after the spangled pianist. This has been rewarding but also somewhat exhausting. When people ask the name of our pet, we are compelled to regurgitate chunks of Liberace’s bio, to mention nothing of teaching the correct spelling and pronunciation of L-I-B-E-R-A-C-E.
Lack of awareness about Lib is understandable. There is, after all, a very limited Liberace movie canon. The best you can hope for is to catch The Loved One. Based on the novelette by Evelyn Waugh, this 1965 Tony Richardson movie satirizes the U.S. funeral industry and stars Roddy McDowall and Sir John Gielgud. Liberace sizzles in the role of Mr. Starker, the casket salesman of “Whispering Glades.” (Christopher Isherwood co-wrote the screenplay, raising the question “How many homos can you squeeze into one movie?”)