In Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, the recent Liberace biopic that made its debut on HBO last month and airs again tonight, one of the more lasting impressions – aside from thong tan lines – is the power of style to seduce, to define and to (literally) cloak reality.
This makes sense, as it was the flamboyant pianist, known as Mr. Showmanship, who was one of the first to understand the potency of attention-getting style. “Well, look me over,” he once said. “I did wear it to be noticed.”
And, it seems, emulated. In the wake of his crystal-encrusted tuxedos and that famously outlandish white-fur cape with the 16-foot train came Elton John, Michael Jackson, Cher, David Bowie, Madonna and Lady Gaga. In fact, Lady Gaga’s arrival at the 2011 Grammy Awards in an egg carried by four men echoed a Liberace spectacle that saw the star emerge from a Fabergé version at Radio City Music Hall in 1986.
In many ways, Liberace is the father of modern celebrity. He indulged in plastic surgery. He wore bling before it had a name. Rising to fame in the fifties, he was one of the first to understand the power of TV – the allure of the visual.
Born to working-class Polish-Italian immigrant parents in Wisconsin in 1919, Wladziu Valentino Liberace grew up in Depression-era hardship and was determined to make money. Very early on, he recognized that style could make him memorable even if it fed rumours that he was gay. In an attempt to quell accusations of homosexuality, his handlers gave him a more conservative, “manly” appearance in the early 1950s, cutting and straightening his hair, eliminating the candelabras and directing him to change costumes only once per show instead of several times.
The approach was a resounding failure. As a result, he amped up his garish style (an electric tuxedo with 4,000 light bulbs comes to mind) and kept denying the rumours, saying he hadn’t found the right girl after his heart was broken by figure skater Sonja Henie.
The Liberace Show, which made its debut in 1951, had a cult following, drawing more than 35 million viewers. He received 10,000 fan letters per week and many marriage proposals. In 1955, The Guinness Book of World Records listed Liberace as the world’s highest-paid musician in a single season after he earned $2-million for appearances during a six-week period.
His creation of a celebrity cult – and the role his style had in that genesis – is perhaps why Liberace is having a moment. A new book written by award-winning designers Connie Furr Soloman and Jan Jewett, Liberace Extravaganza! showcases some of the entertainer’s most outré costumes along with behind-the-scenes stories from his trusted friends. The book lovingly describes the craftsmanship involved in such outfits as the clamshell-collared King Neptune costume, the cape for which was 26 feet in circumference and featured appliquéd sea scenes of corals and fish on both the interior and exterior. It weighed more than 200 pounds.
But I don’t think we’re interested in Liberace again only because of his kitschy style, as deliciously outrageous as it was.
In the movie, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival last month, the sets were meticulous in their re-creation of his eighties-era excess, from the ermine throw on his bed to the Sistine-chapel-like painting on the ceiling above it (it featured cherubs in his likeness) to his $55,000 marble bathtub.
We are fascinated with Liberace partly because of our suspicion about what excess style, what theatre and costume, can hide. Behind the Candelabra could have been titled The Dark Side of Sequins for all its disturbing revelations about the relationship between the maestro (played with pitch-perfect creepiness by Michael Douglas) and his one-time boy toy, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).
Based on Thorson’s 1988 tell-all, published the year after Liberace died of AIDS-related pneumonia, the movie charts their five-year romance, which began in 1977.
Thorson was a vulnerable 17-year-old hunk from the foster-care system when he was introduced to the star, by then in his 60s. Liberace took him under his wing and into his bed, playing a manipulative and predatory father-figure role. The entertainer even promised to adopt Thorson and encouraged him to get plastic surgery to make him appear more like him. But their relationship unravelled with Thorson’s drug use and Liberace’s appetite for new, younger men.
In Liberace’s heyday, who would have suspected what was going on behind all that glitz? Many people didn’t even think he was gay. And while it’s true that in today’s celebrity culture the press is far more invasive than it was was in Liberace’s time, we’re still besotted with the glamour and the style and the fabulousness of celebrities. It’s integral to fan obsession. But do we completely believe in their costumes of identity?
We know that celebrities (and their stylists) hope that they’re dressed to express their best, distilled identities, but they’re also reflecting what they think others want. Style both reveals identity and creates it, expressing the essence of someone at the same time as it reduces the larger truth of a personality down to a marketable persona.
Perhaps our interest in gossip about the truth of their lives is an implicit acknowledgment that their visual appeal is mere veneer, a beautiful distraction.
Liberace, in other words, may have been the wizard of modern celebrity, but he has also become a cautionary tale about what goes on behind the magical, glittery cloak.