It’s too easy to make fun of Liberace, and maybe now too cruel. One can’t, after all, help one’s essential nature. Liberace achieved fame in an era when what he was could not be admitted to. His homosexuality would have subjected him to not only ridicule but hatred and ostracism, possibly even criminal accusation. But nature cannot be denied; and thus Liberace exploited his own proclivities. He fashioned himself into an icon of excess that appealed to a public panting for glamour and a frisson-like thrill of participating in something extravagant and maybe a touch forbidden—what adult man in the 1950s would dare to be this garish except in showbiz? The middle-aged women who adored him loved the glitter, the gaud, the flashy kitsch without, apparently, ever cottoning to what lay behind such eye-dazzling glare. (An elderly aunt of mine attended two of his shows in the 1970s; she told me he literally wore a ring on every finger and swirled his gleaming capes to audience delight. “He put on quite a show,” she said.)
In retrospect, Liberace’s feat was remarkable: hiding what he was in plain sight, and channeling his self into a display of fabulous wish-fulfillment. He was slick and ultra-professional, oozing fake warmth through his capped teeth, wowing his core fans of aging ladies by embodying an unspoken fantasy of sexless, sublimated eroticism: the charming and devoted husband/son/lover, with just a touch of the best-girlfriend-cum-confidante quality, who makes them feel both beautiful and safe. In a way, Liberace deserves not our scorn but our admiration. He entertained and hoodwinked his audiences without betraying his essential being; and he did it with a benign twinkle in a mascared eye, while yet gliding in luxury to the bank. He’s earned not our laughter but the applause he always sought.
Still, there IS that film he starred in, Sincerely Yours…
My, oh my. Liberace in Sincerely Yours. Or should I write ‘is’? He certainly IS sincere, in everything he does onscreen. The film is a 1955 remake of The Man Who Played God, about a pianist who becomes deaf and, as substitute for art, decides to solve the problems of other people, problems he learns about through lip-reading. Being that Liberace was a real pianist, the film obliges us to sit through lots of piano-playing scenes, at concerts, nightclubs, high-society gatherings, and even impromptu in a museum, before the soundtrack goes silent, signifying hearing loss. Thereafter our genial key-banger, here called Tony Warrin, after feeling a wee bit sorry for himself, takes to using binoculars to spy on people from his apartment balcony, reading their lips to find out what’s bothering them. As it is, Tony helps only two people, a little boy in leg braces who wants to play football, and a lower-class mother who wants to impress her daughter’s ritzy in-laws. Any more problems, and Liberace would have had to play less piano to fit the running time. Audiences, however, were not given a choice in this matter.
But it’s all sincere piano being played, in a profusion of modes and styles. Liberace doesn’t skimp here, he has something for all tastes. His playing of the classical pieces sounds heavy-handed to me, but his performing of “Chopsticks” is bang-on. (Banging is pretty much his forte.) He also ripples through Mozart and Lizst, tinkles out some Gershwin, dashes off a bit of boogie-woogie, launches into a Latin number, and finishes up by pounding out the Notre Dame fight song. And that’s not all. He tells jokes, explains music theory, and sings (the title song). And just, just when I thought that all that was left for him to do was a turn or two on the dance floor, when Lo and Behold! up springs Liberace from the piano bench to tap his toes to “Tea for Two.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Maybe this exhaustive exhibition of his talents is what kept Liberace from revealing anything that could be called acting. In that one area he had as much range as a TV test pattern. Throughout the film he maintains one expression, a weird, tilted half-smile, as if an entire jaw had been attached to his lower face with loose screws and left to sag. Whenever the camera cuts to Liberace, for whatever reason, there’s that smile: placid, immovable, almost beatific in its serenity. It takes on a life of its own, like the beam on the face of the Buddha, achieving the peace that passeth understanding. I doubt if a bulldozer could have budged that smirk. When, in one scene, Liberace’s under the ether for an operation, he’s still got that same strange, oddly sad smile, as fixed as the rictus on a corpse. A little too sincere, perhaps.
You can watch Sincerely Yours as its own jaw-sagging display of priceless camp, but I’ve discovered another way of viewing the film: as a presentation of the Kuleshov effect. The Kuleshov effect (if I may take a brief film history detour here) refers to Lev Kuleshov, a 1920s Soviet filmmaker known for a cinematic editing experiment: he alternated a series of images (food, a woman, a dead child), with a shot of an actor’s face purportedly reacting to whatever was seen in the previous shot. If there was a shot of the food, audiences thought the actor looked hungry; if a shot of the child, he looked sad. Turned out that the shot of the man’s face was the same one used for all the reaction shots. It was the viewing audience that supplied the emotional response, assigning and projecting meaning from the juxtaposition of content and not from the individual shots themselves. Alfred Hitchcock described Kuleshov’s experiment as an exercise in “pure editing,” in which film technique, rather than acting or dialogue, supplies the meaning of what spectators see. It’s an auteurist dream tool, using absolute cinema to manipulate audience response.
I’m not claiming anything so canny or sophisticated for Sincerely Yours. It’s just that there’s really no other way to view Liberace’s ceaselessly frozen visage. Since no matter what the scene, Liberace reacts to it with that same damned grin, we in the audience have to figure out what’s going on with what shots the director, Gordon Douglas, chooses to surround his inanimate star. So when Liberace looks at his girlfriend (an overtanned Dorothy Malone) and the camera cuts back to him, we think “desire”; when he suddenly can’t hear the piano (cut from a shot of fingers soundlessly plonking the keys), we think “sorrow.” This film may be the first American example of interactive movie-making, relying on us—we wonderful people out there in the dark—to create what isn’t happening. Indeed, my suggestion to anyone teaching aspiring filmmakers would be to use this movie as a demonstration of how to piece together film to derive the maximum impact from an inert object.
Of course, I know what wised-up film goers, watching Liberace kiss Malone with all the passion of frozen soup, are thinking. And it has little to do with Soviet montage. Today such a scene is perceived as a revealing “tell” by those in the know, who discern in Liberace’s overt lack of ardor what Doug Bonner at the Boiling Sand blog calls the star’s “tangible anxiety in his pretending to be straight.” (I recommend Bonner’s essay for an astute Queer reading of this film.) Though I think even those staid mid-fifties audiences may have caught on. The fans, including the middle-aged ladies, were not persuaded, and the film flopped—so badly that Warner Bros., the producing studio, bought Liberace out of his two-picture contract, rather than make a second film with him. If skinflinting Jack Warner was willing to spend money not to make a movie, then returns must have been dismal indeed. Not even Kuleshov could save the day.
Clearly, the filmmakers did not grasp Liberace’s secret, whatever it was that made him, at one point, the world’s highest paid entertainer. I can just picture those frantic studio meetings, with salivating executives scheming how to open the hearts, and wallets, of all those adoring matrons out there, if they could just figure out how to package the guy. But all they could come up with was “Liberace Is Emoting at the Paramount,” as Bosley Crowther not so kindly headlined his review. (“When he wears his black-sequined dinner jacket,” Crowther sneered, “he hits the peak of his acting skill.”) Whatever magique Liberace held in his doigts did not translate to the big screen. Thereafter Mr. Showmanship confined his subsequent film appearance to cameos and bit parts—most notably as, of all things, a coffin salesman in The Loved One, an appearance that the great film critic Stanley Kaufmann in his review said he actually enjoyed.
Like I said earlier, you can’t make this stuff up.
Where the filmmakers went wrong, I think, was in relying on cinema and its conventions and not on Liberace himself. By trying to stuff their man into a typical Hollywood love story, with its typical Hollywood filming practices, they ended up, like Carroll’s White Knight, madly squeezing a right-hand foot into a left-hand shoe. What Liberace needed was a venue where he could be, not a fictional character, but just himself. Hence Sincerely Yours‘s truly most telling scene, when Tony performs in a nightclub. It’s a sequence both unintentionally hilarious and just plain weird; for those baffled by the Liberace phenomenon, it’s required viewing. I wonder if Liberace had been consulted for its staging; I’ve a feeling its features were taken from Liberace’s own nightclub act, particularly the moment when Tony urges one plump beldame to touch his knee (yes, I mean, really). Which she does, her face assuming an expression of almost erotic ecstasy. Who knew the Liberacean kneecap could inspire such holy lust? And was this bit the actress’s own inspiration or Liberace’s? It’s the kind of observed detail that seems taken from the life.
No doubt, that’s where Liberace’s appeal lay: in the personal, touchable, in-the-flesh appearance, something that didn’t transmute to celluloid. No wonder he flopped on the big, distant film screen; there was simply no there there. You can see that in the film’s funniest bit, when Tony leads the nightclub audience into shouting out words during a musical number, and where for once the camera accommodates Liberace and not the demands of film narrative. As the revelers roar in unison, Liberace leers right at the camera—about the only time in the film his expression actually changes—and asks if we “want to do it again,” speaking as if “it” were the most gloriously filthy thing in the world. The moment’s a howl, but also unnerving—is this Tony or Liberace talking? Are we within the context of the film or are we now outside it, being propositioned by Liberace himself? There’s no Kuleshovian camera cut to guide our reaction, so however we react to Liberace’s offer is left to ourselves.
Perhaps that was the secret of Liberace’s appeal: that beneath the slush and sentiment, beneath the kitschy fashions and schmaltzy music and middle-age ogling, you could still draw your own conclusions. Kuleshov be damned; the fans didn’t need visual aids to steer their responses. They could figure out Liberace on their own.
Bonus Clip 1: Yes, Liberace could sorta tap-dance (my aunt even saw him do so, in his stage show). You can see a demonstration of his technique in this clip from a 1956 episode of the Jimmy Durante TV show. Scroll to the 4:10 mark to watch (then stay tuned to watch some Terpsichorean display from—George Raft!):
Bonus Clip 2: Some left-shoe squeezing: Liberace trying to be both Tony Warrin and Liberace in part of Sincerely Yours‘s nightclub sequence: