Sunday, May 26, 2013

Appreciating Liberace and HBO's "Behind the Candelabra"

With tonight's premiere of HBO's much-touted TV movie Behind the Candelabra, Liberace -- the man, the performer -- has once again been propelled into the spotlight.  That's exactly where he'd have wanted to be, where he always wanted to be, and where he belonged.  In the way that a truly unique, charming and talented performer can transcend time and circumstance -- think Elvis, think Judy -- so did Wisconsin-born Wladziu Liberace use his gift for playing the piano to become a genuine icon of show business.

Much-loved, much-discussed, overdone and yet probably under-appreciated, it's impossible (at least for anybody except the very young) to ignore Liberace and his influence on entertainment.  His life continues to intrigue -- in the closet technically all his life, yet never anything but gay in the original sense of the word and in fact virtually defining gay, as reported by Merriam Webster:  "happily excited, keenly alive and exuberant, having or inducing high spirits, bright, lively, brilliant in color...."  That IS Liberace, and it's unfortunate that sometimes the gossipy, more flamboyant and more easily mocked (by some) aspects of his life are pushed to the front when what we really need to remember and celebrate is the completely satisfying -- for us and for him -- sheer joy of performing that infused every Liberace performance.

Such as, how is he not adorable here playing "Nola" on his 1969 British TV series?

How about classical?  I've got a little Lizst -- "Concerto in A Major" also from 1969:

How about a little "Tea for Two"?  Watch how much he's enjoying playing; he's having such a great time and is sharing that with his audience, and this isn't even a big live performance.

From one of his TV appearances during the 1950s, here he is doing Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" with all the appropriate flair.

Again from the 1950s, Liberace in very effective direct address describing and playing a devilishly diabolical piece -- his version of Saint-Saens "Dance Macabre":

Here's a completely winning performance of "The Piano Roll Blues" also from the 1950s:

Do I hear a waltz?

Here Liberace performs one of the most melancholy ballads ever written, Kurt Weill's "September Song" from the Broadway musical "Knickerbocker Holiday." (Side note:  the best version of this song is one we'll never hear, when Danny Kaye during a live performance sang this to a woman who had just lost her husband in WWII.  He never recorded it.)

This promo for his 1969 British TV series is full of Liberace trademarks --

A comedy/music sequence from the show with guest Phyllis Diller, a secret piano player:

If you have a half-hour, take a look at this amusing episode of "The Jack Benny Show" with guest star Liberace, from January 1954.

Another appearance with Jack Benny from 1969 -- both older but they've still got it!

For a good dose of the Liberace glitz that's most associated with his longtime Las Vegas concerts, here's the opening video sequence and entrance that introduced the showman at each performance:

There is a plethora of other Liberace clips on YouTube and clearly a cadre of devoted fans who un-ironically enjoy his talent and personality.  You can even love your Liberace with a bit of irony and it looks like this will be the tack taken by director Stephen Soderberg, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon and HBO as they bring Behind the Candelabra to us tonight.

Just the fact that Liberace the legend, who would have turned 94 years old this past May 16th and who died 26 years ago in 1987 at the age of 67, is being celebrated with Behind the Candelabra is proof enough of his lasting impact on entertainment.  He is a one-name wonder, one of the all-time greats, much more than a novelty performer but surely one of the most novel performers ever to take to a stage.  I'll leave you with his video, Liberace's goodbye remarks after being on the popular daytime talker The Mike Douglas Show (circa 1974) and a very sweet rendition of one of his signature tunes "I'll Be Seeing You."  I'd venture to say few performers ever have put their heart on their sleeve as openly as Liberace always did, despite the immense task of breaking with convention during very different times, of being utterly himself, of finding his own way and creating a legacy that's a lasting tribute to his talent and drive.

I haven't even talked about his movie appearances, have I?  Maybe next time.

Don't miss Behind the Candelabra premiering tonight on HBO at 9pm with an encore immediately following at 11pm!  Check the HBO website for more information, behind-the-scenes features and complete schedule info.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Flaming Nose Re-Post: All about Liberace TV Movies, originally posted 10/11/2011

In light of tomorrow's premiere of HBO's Behind the Candelabra, here's a post we did back in 2011 when the project was first announced.  Good background material on the two TV movies that came out at the time of Liberace's death in early 1987, and we'll have more on Liberace in another post.

The news out today that Michael Douglas and Matt Damon will star (as the charismatic pianist and his boyfriend) in an HBO Liberace biopic entitled Behind the Candelabra, to be directed by Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Ocean's Eleven, Traffic, Erin Brockovich), brings to mind the pair of dueling Liberace TV movies from back in 1988.

Liberace died on February 4th, 1987, after a glorious and multifaceted career, and also after a struggle with AIDS (never publicly acknowledged by Liberace, though) and earlier notoriety from a palimony suit brought by his young male companion Scott Thorson.  It took a year and a half before both ABC and CBS each brought out their own TV Movies.  In a terrific example of TV timing -- though I suppose we should be amazed that they didn't schedule them head-to-head against each other -- ABC's Liberace aired on Sunday, October 2, 1988, to be followed exactly a week later by the CBS TVM Liberace: Behind the Music.

ABC's version starred veteran actor and familiar TV face Andrew Robinson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Cobra, Dirty Harry, Ryan's Hope) as Liberace, with Rue McClanahan (Maude, The Golden Girls) as Liberace's sainted mother Frances, and John Rubenstein (Crazy Like a Fox, Family, Angel, Desperate Housewives and many more) as Liberace's business associate.  This version was more discreet about Liberace's private life and only hinted at his gay lifestyle, instead portraying his struggle to maintain a private life more in general terms and not just concerning his sexuality.  Robinson was terrific as Liberace, too.

Here's a scene from the movie, and you can see a promo on YouTube by clicking here.

Liberace: Behind the Music, the CBS take on the subject, starred Canadian actor Victor Garber as Liberace. Garber, now well-known for his roles in Alias and especially in the blockbuster film Titanic, wasn't anything close to a household name at the time this telefilm was made.  Of course, theatergoers knew him for his Tony-nominated presence on Broadway in many prestigious productions (including in the original cast of Sweeney Todd), and he had also starred in the movie version of his breakout musical Godspell in 1972 and did many other supporting roles on TV, but his big stardom was to come later.  Well-respected actress Maureen Stapleton (Cocoon, The Money Pit, Reds, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, Plaza Suite, Airport) co-starred as Frances Liberace, and veteran Canadian character actor Saul Rubinek (Warehouse 13, Nixon, Dick, Frasier) appeared as Liberace's business manager.

Here's the promo for the movie, and then a scene:

Garber also got kudos for his impressive and sensitive work as Liberace, and this movie was more open about his sexual orientation which gives it an edge in the realism department, though it's still a typical TV biopic.  Obviously the Soderbergh project will deal with the older Liberace if Michael Douglas is playing him, and even though Scott Thorson was only in his early twenties during their affair, Matt Damon may be good enough to pull off that age difference...but he is over 40 now, so it could be a stretch.  Still, this could be a terrific TVM and in any case it's going to be fascinating and unusual.  Producer Jerry Weintraub spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the project, and you can read the interesting article by clicking here.

If the news of this project has piqued your own interest in Liberace (as it has mine), you should take a look at a few good websites, particularly the excellent Bob's World of Liberace; The Liberace Foundation and Museum; this very detailed account of Liberace's starring movie role in 1953's Sincerely Yours, and of course Wikipedia's concise bio of Liberace. Liberace was a consummate entertainer with a unique sense of style and personal flair that set him apart from everyone else of his era.  We're really looking forward to Behind the Candelabra when it shows up on HBO!  Hurry up!