Sunday, July 14, 2013

Liberace and the Closeted 1960s

Liberace explores dualities on Batman
We got a peak at Liberace's real life in the recent HBO telefilm Behind the Candelabra. He also popped up as a guest star on a  DVD of a Laugh-In episode I bought for 50 cents at a used book store. And of course there is the infamous episode of Batman where he played the dual roles of Chandell, a variation on his public persona of a flamboyant pianist, and Harry, Chandell' gangster twin brother. The HBO film exposes the schizophrenic nature of the star's career and personal life and America's wink-wink attitude about homosexuality and "fabulousness" during the peak of his prominence from the 1950s through the '80s. In the Steven Soderbergh-directed feature, which was deemed too "gay" to be released in theaters, we see Liberace's schmaltzy stage act hiding his true same-sex-saturated lifestyle. His managers knew the truth, but covered it up, fearing homophobic attitudes would ruin his lucrative career. There's a telling scene where the pianist is pontificating for an adoring group of chorus boys that Jane Fonda and Ed Asner should stay out of politics. Performers are not here to change the world, he says, just to entertain. It was clear Liberace wanted to stay in the closet and the idea of changing anyone's mind about gayness was out of the question.

Michael Douglas will probably win an Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award for his performance. Matt Damon as his boyfriend will be submitted as a Supporting Actor so he can win too, but his role was equally prominent.

In the Batman episode, "The Devil's Fingers/The Dead Ringers," Liberace's sexuality is given the satiric treatment, but of course, the entire series was a goof on mid-America's "traditional values." Batman was in reality millionaire Bruce Wayne living out an adolescent fantasy of fighting crime in tights with his youthful ward Dick Grayson aka Robin. The only steady female presence in their lives was den mother Aunt Harriet, placed in the Wayne mansion presumably to keep the household from descending into a gay orgy with three single men, including the prissy butler Alfred, getting up to heaven knows what. In this episode, Aunt Harriet stands in for all the middle-aged ladies who swooned over Lee and longed to enfold him in a motherly embrace. Chandell attempts to seduce Aunt Harriet in order to get the Wayne fortune, while all the time he uses a gang of beautiful chorus girls to commit high-end, musical-themed robberies. Robin even makes a reference to Chandell's reputation as a ladies' man. There's a ridiculous scene with Chandell and Harriet enjoying a romantic tryst, sipping root beer as if it were champagne.

Interestingly, this was the highest rated Batman sequence of the entire series and possibly the campiest. Here was a drag-inspired, gay performer playing a version of himself seducing an old lady while hanging out with gorgeous women. To add to the duality, he's also playing a macho doppelganger, society's idea of what a real "man" should be. The only episode with a higher camp quotient would be the "Black Widow" one where Tallulah Bankhead disguised herself as Robin and her signature growl came out of Burt  Ward's mouth.  

Liberace's Laugh-In appearance stirred clear of overt gay double entendres; those were reserved for regular Alan Sues who played a swishy sportscaster and occasionally made veiled queen jokes during the cocktail party sequence. You couldn't even acknowledge gay sexuality in the late 1960s, gays were "artistic and eccentric" like Paul Lynde's Uncle Arthur of Bewitched. 

In the end, Liberace dies of AIDS and, like Rock Hudson, tried to hide even the gay-associated cause of his death. If he were alive today, he'd probably revel in the new acceptance of diversity, and indulge in serial marriages like a gay Elizabeth Taylor.  

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