Look me Over: Liberace

Liberace? Isn’t he just a symbol for all that is terrible about Las Vegas kitsch? There are various answers to this question – the most obvious being “You say that as if it’s a bad thing”. Another answer is that – for brief moments at least – Liberace was a pioneering musician and entertainer.

For a start, he seems to have been a very talented pianist. An early clip show him making a very good fist of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. Later on, his music teacher explains that whereas he (the teacher) had long fingers, Liberace’s were not just stubby – they were festooned with heavy rings. Given the span you need to play Khachaturian’s chords, this makes his performance even more impressive.

And then there’s the Elvis connection. When Elvis was still starting out in Vegas, Liberace was already well established there. We see old photos of Elvis and Liberace clowning around, Elvis pretending to play piano and Liberace on guitar. We are also told that until he met Liberace, Elvis was a very conservative dresser. Shortly after they met, out came the gold lamé suits a la the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong.

Above all there was the closeted homosexuality. Liberace was a good Catholic boy. On becoming rich, the first thing he did was buy a big house for him and his mother (she also regularly appeared on his tv shows). In an early tv interview, he feigns offence at the idea that his audience is just old women, saying he also attracts young women. In another interview of the time, he explains his perfect woman (chic, not too masculine).

Anyone looking at his act now, with the mink stoles and the camp patter must see that he was at least addressing a certain gay audience. And yet Liberace continued to deny his sexuality until he was sued in the USA’s first male-male “patrimony” case. Even after his death his people insisted that he had died from a heart condition, not AIDS. After all, he was a regular guest of the bigoted Reagans.

So, there’s plenty to get your teeth into here, even if you still feel that you have to ask, why has this documentary been made now? And the answer seems to be – and not in a good way – Stephen Soderbergh’s 2013 film Behind the Candelabra. That film, which gained a degree of critical acclaim, was based on the memoir of Liberace’s ex-chauffeur and lover Scott Thorson.

It is not entirely clear whether Thorson declined to be interviewed for this film, or that director Jeremy J P Feteke didn’t think him worth interviewing. Either way, Thorson is depicted from beginning to end as a wrong un, who took drugs and was only fired after he turned up drunk and stoned to a performance where he ended up driving Liberace’s on stage car into the front row.

Now it may well be that Thorson was just as debauched as Feteke claims, but there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to look for nuance or mitigating factors (still less to ask the question if Thorson was the only one in this entourage taking drugs). Various friends and protegés insist that Liberace’s only problem was that he was too trusting. He was a Saint, who was exploited by hangers on.

Actually, most of the talking heads are not former friends of Liberace, but their sons and daughters. So here’s the daughter of his plastic surgeon. There’s the son of his manager. This reinforces that impression that this is neither a film that needed to be made nor once with reliable witnesses. Rather its an attempt to redress the balance following Soderbergh’s film. And if most eye witnesses are dead, we’ll make do with their children.

Thorson does appear in the film, or at least a his representative, dressed in shades and a cowboy hat. Every couple of minutes we see shots of a figure, usually shot from the back, driving through Vegas and California, playing the slot machines or sniffing coke. These scenes are consistently boring and add absolutely nothing to the story (though they do help bring the film up to the 90 minute length which justifies releasing it as a feature).

There are many stories about Liberace that would be compelling. We hear – more than once – that he feels his lavish spending is justified because he grew up in poverty. But we see nothing about how Liberace became Liberace. Just what was it in his performances that won his first audience? And the discussion about whether he was right to hide his sexuality are closed down by interviewees who refuse to believe that he could ever have been wrong.

Snippets of excitement keep on breaking through, but they are too few and too short. A wasted opportunity.

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