With gay marriage rippling across the country and even the Boy Scouts opening their doors to gays, it’s hard to believe that during Liberace’s lifetime, coming out was career suicide. The mystery is how anyone, particularly his adoring blue-haired female fans, could have ever thought otherwise. His flamboyant, over-the-top more –is-better excess in décor and fashion, both on stage and off, screams “queen” louder than his proficient, versatile piano playing. “The Impossible Dream” indeed.
“I call this palatial kitsch” says Michael Douglas playing Liberace, known as Lee, to Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson, his soon to be paramour in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. This is shortly after Scott enters the Las Vegas spread where he asks the friend who’s brought him: “Is this a palace?” which prompts the reply “Lee thinks he’s King Ludwig II.” Scott: “ Who’s he?” “The Liberace of Bavaria.” (Ludwig [1845-1886], also gay, commissioned extravagant palaces, patronized composer Richard Wagner, and was deposed as “mad.”)
Scene from Behind the Candelabra. (Courtesy HBO)
The many reflective, glittery surfaces that form Liberace’s world can be considered a metaphor for his life (one of his nicknames as The Glitter Man). Although disco glitter balls are strangely absent, Behind the Candelabra is situated firmly in the disco era (the thumping instrumental strains of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” open the film), despite Liberace’s musical repertoire of classical, boogie-woogie, ragtime, and Broadway musicals. The highest-paid entertainer in the world from the 1950s-70s collected lower-end houses in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas that he transformed into gob-smacking opulent creations. “I do all my own decorating,“ explains Lee, who truly adorned his own life and its fantasy setting.
In the film, the location of his Las Vegas home is actually Zsa Zsa Gabor’s French Regency-style mansion in Bel Air (which sold for $11 million on May 20) originally built by Howard Hughes, and rented by Elvis Presley. The ochre exterior with white broken pediments around doors and windows, and black & white-striped awnings like piano keys, leads to an interior filled with chandeliers and wall sconces, a twisted Baroque-columned four-poster bed, swan faucets, Roman-style male nude statues, multiple portraits of Liberace (in one he kisses a Cardinal’s hand), a mammoth curved bar with swagged floral insets, Ionic pilasters, and frosted glass, and murals aplenty including the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the bedroom highlighting Adam, but minus the body of God (only the old man’s finger). The palette is largely a golden vanilla with soft florals, perched on a highly polished floor you could skate on. Other film locations included Liberace’s L.A. penthouse at 7461 Beverly Blvd; the U.S. Postal Center in West Hollywood, where Thorson worked after the break-up; Our Lady of Solitude Catholic Church, Palm Springs where Lee’s funeral was held; and on the on the stage of the Las Vegas Hilton, where Liberace performed.
The stage sets, by contrast, are largely dark caves without natural light, which allows the artificial lights and mirrored surfaces to sparkle, whether the small shaded fixtures on patron’s tables, or the trademark candelabra on the mirror-tiled piano. And then there’s Liberace himself in those custom-made costumes from his virgin white fox coat with 16-foot train costing $300,000 with $100,00 of Austrian crystals, “the only coat in the world with its own chauffer and car.” Or his suit of mirrored tiles from head to toe. Or the Lasagna Suit, a red and gold Fauntleroy outfit (if he spilled tomato sauce on it, no one would notice) with white lace ruff and gold bow tie with red-sequined center and astral collar, topped by an white ostrich-feather cape with red lining. Or the 200-pound King Neptune suit featuring a clamshell collar that surrounded his entire head. At-home wear featured silk kaftans with jeweled clasps, gold slip-ons and gold chains and massive rings clutching champagne flutes, especially in the Grecian hot tub that sported painted puti lounging on piano keys and a portrait of Liberace above.
All this was Liberace’s rejection of the traditional black tie and tails and black piano which was too uniform for him. Rather, his grandiose style was meant to focus attention on him, Mr. Showmanship. When he is about to appear on the 1981 Academy Awards playing all the nominated Best Original Scores, he objects to stars like Jane Fonda’s activism, and declares, “When one reaches star status, it is not an invitation to show everyone how to change the world…We are here to entertain the world and sell drinks and souvenirs.“
And let’s face it – we all look better in candlelight.