A tepid, superficial and unsatisfying movie by HBO has brought the spectacle of Wladziu Valentino Liberace -- better known to the world simply as pianist-showman extraordinaire Liberace – back into America's living rooms and consciousness more than 25 years after his death from AIDS complications.
Liberace led as fascinating and tragic a life as you could imagine, one that deserved a deeper, more comprehensive treatment than what director Steven Soderbergh served up Sunday night.
Aside from the absurdities of casting the very homely Michael Douglas as the superstar pianist (and the 42-year-old Matt Damon as his “teenaged” lover, Scott Thorson), the HBO offering utterly failed to explore just what made Liberace such a compelling and, yes, highly influential, figure in American pop culture history.
Liberace, born to a working-class Polish-Italian Catholic family near Milwaukee, probably embodied all the aspirations and inherent hypocrisies of 20th-century America better than any other celebrity. His story not only paralleled the overwhelming rise and influence of mass media but also reflected the rampant materialism and contradictions inherent in an upwardly mobile capitalist society.
As a struggling young concert pianist in the Depression-era Midwest, Liberace realized he could never become a great “serious” musician like his idol, the Polish genius Ignacy Jan Paderewski; nor would he ever make much money within the stuffy, restrictive realms of classical music.
So, as an aspiring young son of struggling immigrants, he devoted himself to the sole ambitions of becoming famous and fabulously wealthy – both of which he accomplished beyond his wildest dreams. (What could be more "American" than that?)
And, alas, along the way, he completely lost his soul and paved himself a depraved and degrading pathway straight to hell. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote exactly about this in “Faust” more than a century before Liberace was even born.
Liberace's most brilliant stroke was to make classical music “accessible” to the masses. He did this by not taking himself seriously, sprinkling his chamber music productions with bits of contemporary pop and Broadway tunes, while completely engaging his audiences and delighting (and sometimes outraging) them with increasingly wild and ornate costumes and stage-sets. (Liberace reportedly based his over-the-top, outrageous stage persona on the highly respected 19th-century Hungarian piano prodigy Franz Liszt.)
Thus, in a sense, by throwing all restraint (and good taste) out the window, he became a fantastic entertainer, if not a great musician. The public – whether in Las Vegas or concert halls or in the new medium of television – ate it up.
Liberace was so extravagantly successful that he became the highest-paid entertainer on the planet in the 1950s and early 1960s; indeed, at the time he was as popular (if not more popular) as entertainment behemoths like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. But while Sinatra and Elvis remain pop culture icons and globally revered, Liberace's star has nearly collapsed over the past 25 years.
Liberace, widely detested by the intelligentsia and by “serious” music critics and fans, is now regarded as a pathetic, vulgar joke – embodying the dankest recesses of empty show-biz glitz and glitter. And this is patently unfair.
Scoff if you will, pop- and rock fans, but if Liberace did not exist, there would likely have been no Little Richard, no Elton John, no Freddie Mercury, no David Bowie, no David Lee Roth, no Bryan Ferry, no Roger Daltrey, no James Brown, no Sylvester Stewart, no Mick Jagger, no Michael Jackson, no Boy George, and no Prince (or at least not in the way we have come to know them as).
In fact, Elton John, perhaps the biggest pop star in the world during the 1970s, owed his entire garish stage persona to Liberace. As a young lad in England in the 1950s (where Liberace enjoyed tremendous popularity), Reginald Dwight (Elton's real name) was mesmerized by Liberace and later called him an inspiration and even a “hero.”
And no less a figure than Elvis himself – arguably the greatest single act in rock history – owed heavily to Liberace in terms of style and stage persona. (The young Elvis even asked Liberace for advice on his act, and the pianist immediately gave him a gold lamé jacket, which instantly boosted his stage appeal and made it “cool” for rock stars to look as glitzy as possible).
One could perhaps also trace a direct line from Liberace’s excessive flourish on the keyboards to one Pete Townshend – the legendary guitarist of British rock super-group The Who, who thrilled audiences by the "windmill strumming" and then smashing his guitar to bits following a performance. This act of contrived violence added nothing to The Who’s musical ‘substance,’ but created an unforgettable visual image that one now cannot separate from Townshend’s overall legacy. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire could also be linked to Liberace’s endless array of ‘tricks’ and ‘gimmicks’ to enliven his stage performances.
Of course, the music of Liberace and that of the Who and Hendrix could not be more different – but they both did the same thing, give the public a show they would never forget through carefully considered acts of augmentation.
So, is Liberace really as “disposable” and “unimportant” as some critics charge? Musically, Liberace's legacy is pretty bleak – he was an adequate pianist, but did not compose music himself, nor could he sing too well.
But, as we all know by now, showbiz is all about the "sizzle," not the "steak." And Liberace exploited the public's insatiable appetite for glamor, opulence and narcissism to unprecedented heights – to the point that his “persona” and reputation as “Mister Showmanship” completely superseded his actual musical talents.
We have witnessed this exact same phenomenon with dozens of major artists ever since; i.e., where the details of their personal lives, their scandals, their wealth, their addictions, their public failures and humiliations, have become far more important than the magnitude of their actual talents.
Moreover, Liberace's homosexuality – something he steadfastly denied up to his dying day – also played a dominant role in his biography. Like his peer (and alleged lover), Rock Hudson, Liberace grew up in a sexually repressed society, where even the hint of homosexuality could destroy a career. As such, Liberace built an elaborate web of lies and deceit to shroud his true lifestyle.
As part of this subterfuge, he espoused politically conservative views and was a devout Catholic who was very aware that his core audience – middle-aged, white working-class and lower middle-class housewives – would be scandalized by any admission of homosexuality on his part.
Of course, as an extremely wealthy celebrity living in the bizarre, fantasy-world cocoon of glitzy Hollywood and Las Vegas show-biz, Liberace could privately indulge in his gay lifestyle to his heart’s content (an option unavailable to millions of other gays). Strangely, the public enthusiastically consumed the products delivered by Hollywood and Broadway without even being aware (or more likely ignoring) the fact that that many of their favorite stars – including Liberace -- were gay.
Liberace, in fact, was packaged as “wholesome inoffensive entertainment” for middle-brow Middle America, light years away from Liberace's actual life. But Liberace didn't create this hypocritical dichotomy – he merely sought to survive and prosper within its restrictive boundaries.
Plus, one would be disingenuous if one claimed that Liberace never “came out”– in fact, with his cartoonishly flamboyant campy stage performance, winking, leering, extravagant clothes and jewelry, and corny jokes, he was ”out” long before anyone else. He just didn’t come out and say so, but most everyone would read between the lines.
And this remains one of the most confounding elements of Liberace's sordid tale – how on earth did he maintain the facade of being “straight,” when his true sexuality was laid out for all to see? Yes, Liberace was incredibly vulgar and represented some of the absolute worst excesses of the hyper-celebrity lifestyle – he drank himself to oblivion; lived in shockingly obscene splendor and opulence; engaged in repeated plastic surgeries and wore ridiculous wigs in a vain attempt to remain 'young'; was addicted to hard-core pornography; and seemed to worship at the altar of gross materialism.
But he was no worse than Jackson, Jagger, or Hendrix or any of a hundred other overpaid, overindulged, overhyped, entertainers who emerged in his wake. Love him or hate him, Liberace was one-of-a-kind and his influence and legacy remains with us.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.