Before Elvis, before Elton John and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace. HBO’s movie, “Behind the Candelabra,” about Liberace and his affair with Scott Thorson, captures the famed pianist in all his excesses. The designers did a fabulous job recreating his flamboyant lifestyle, lavish homes and extravagant costumes — and talk about extreme fashion. Liberace had rhinestone and fur costumes that weighed up to 200 pounds. He kept eleven houses, 39 pianos, and thirty cars, including a 1962 Rolls-Royce Phantom V Landau encrusted with a mosaic of jewel-like mirrors in patterns of prancing horses. He drove his cars right up onto the stage, and would emerge, wearing a getup that matched his car.
The movie was touching and sad, but not without humor. Watching his plastic surgeon’s immobile face (played by Rob Lowe) was a highlight for me. A funny scene is when Liberace and Thorson visit a sordid adult bookstore with private video booths. I had the feeling something would go horribly wrong. It did, for Thorson, who gets sick, either from drugs or drink or he’s just plain appalled. He loses track of Liberace. He stumbles through the dark halls, calling desperately for “Lee,” until he vomits and crumples to the floor. Liberace’s beamingly happy face pops up from behind a door, and he asks in his nasally singsong voice what Scott is doing, as if he’s being such a silly boy, missing all the fun. Brilliant moment.
Anyway, it’s interesting how Liberace’s female fans believed he was straight; he just hadn’t met the right girl. My grandmother thought he was marvelous. She regularly watched his television show. Whenever my parents and I visited, if Liberace’s show was on, her dining room TV would be tuned in.
HBO has a great video on the making of the film, showing his home and recreated sets and costumes here.
Since his name is making headlines again, thanks to the HBO film, I’d like to share this poem I wrote about him, published in my chapbook in 2010.
by Linda K. Sienkiewicz
Glowing from my grandmother’s television
into her steel-town flat, filling her dining room
with a rhinestone sweetness sweeter than
her iced cookies and cardamom bread,
gorgeous in sequined hot pants and he so proud
that his designer said he had the legs of an athlete,
red lips swerving in song as he camped Beethoven
on his candelabra-topped piano, with
sixteen feet of llama fur trailing down a staircase
in obscene opulence, he upstaged the televangelists
behind their Oz curtain of costumed holiness.
Liberace had plenty to hide behind his curtain,
but he didn’t lobby for anything more than
attention, the good son of Polish-Italian immigrants,
a working class diva, so sacred in his beholders’ eyes
they scoffed at The Enquirer’s slander as he
“cried all the way to the bank” when he sued them.
How could you not revere Wladziu?
My grandmother did, she believed in his virtue,
and when he opened his arms to her,
she clapped her arthritic hands in a prayer-
like swoon, her blue eyes wet
as he flowed across her screen.