My 17-year-old daughter came into the living room the other night while I
watched HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” the Liberace biopic based on the tell-all
book by his chauffeur/lover/victim/plaintiff Scott Thorson.
“What are you watching?” my daughter asked.
“A movie about Liberace,” I told her. “You know who he is, don’t you?”
And then I realized the difficulty trying to explain Liberace to a hip-hop
generation that thinks Bravo has always been basic cable. You see, before there
was a RuPaul, an Ellen on daytime, or even the acronym LGBT, there was just the
L—and it stood for Liberace.
With an overall career spanning more than four decades, Liberace was his own
gender phenomenon. For a period from the 50s through the 70s, he was considered
the highest paid entertainer in the world.
He was gay, or “thought to be gay.” Because he came into everyone’s homes via
TV, Liberace was considered “OK” for human consumption. He was his own beard.
The name Liberace itself became an acceptable euphemism in American society for
“all things flamboyant.” And whatever the performer did in his bedroom, well,
Middle America always gave him a pass. That was Lee. America enabled him to come
out to play without making him ever leave the closet.
After all, he was in showbiz, and maybe he was just portraying a role up on
The audience suspended disbelief for Liberace, who was said to be involved with
the Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie. Whatever.
Besides, being in the closet wasn’t so bad if you were Liberace and had the
biggest closet in America.
It makes Liberace’s story an important part of U.S. gay cultural history, maybe
as important as Harvey Milk’s.
Indeed, Liberace’s flame helped America set its gaydar so high that others could
practically go unnoticed. How many people had a fur coat with a long train like
Liberace’s? A small one didn’t count.
In that sense, Liberace set the parameters. While Liberace pranced and tinkled,
whether he knew it or not, he provided cover for others, who could stay closeted
and go about their everyday lives in private.
Certainly, more people are out now. But I can recall in the 70s when I got a
glimpse of that more closeted world. As a college student working a catering job
in Boston, I found myself assigned to a Beacon Hill cocktail party.
The party was all-male, with top executives of major companies amid scions from
Brahmin families. All fashionable fops and white, of course. I never saw so many
ascots in my life. They were their own little club, and they had a great time
together. And when it was over, they even had a regular ritual to end the night.
The host would put on his nightgown, complete with a nightcap, and retreat to
his four-poster bed. There his guests would line up as in a reverse receiving
line (an exit line?), where one-by-one, they would kiss the host good night.
Me, I was only there to heat and serve the hors d’oeuvres.
But it was an example of one aspect of the gay underground as it existed back
then. The part that still had the privilege of class to deflect the sting of
And all that was going on while Liberace was doing his thing out in the open.
Have we come a long way since Liberace? In some ways, yes. Instead of Liberace
on daytime TV, there’s dancing Ellen. And there are some Asian American males
who owe their careers to Liberace. He showed them how to flame on. Would there
be a real-life Franck the wedding
planner without a trailblazing
Basically, despite all the folks who are out, we’re not that much further along
if we still can’t come to closure nationally on the issues that really matter,
like same-sex marriage. Last week’s immigration bill markup was telling when
Southern Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham were OK with immigration, but not
OK with same-sex couples petitioning for their loved ones.
So you watch the movie and think how all this existed over 30 years ago and you
wonder why we haven’t gone beyond that feeling of acceptance we gave Liberace?
The movie does take us back in time. And it makes one forget Michael Douglas
ever played opposite Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” Was it the amyl nitrate
or was it—acting! Both he and Matt Damon seem spot on if one compares their
likeness to this actual clip of the opening of Liberace’s live
Certainly, one feels for Thorson who at 17 was as young as my daughter when he
first met Liberace. Even though the movie is based on Thorson’s telling of his
time with Liberace, he actually comes across as less sympathetic than the star.
That’s hard to do considering Thorson was the victim of a kind of scheme that
would make him the adopted son of Liberace. (But is that any different from
Woody Allen and Soon-Yi?)
Thorson has since accumulated his own set of sordid tales sans Liberace and
currently resides in a Nevada county jail, where it’s doubtful there’s cable.
Nevertheless, for the rest of us, the HBO movie is a real peek into Liberace’s
closet, and a reminder of the way things were. More sad than campy, you see just
how queer things were in the ’70s and ’80s when Liberace reigned supreme.