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.

1 comment:

Julia Naraine said...

I really enjoyed reading your superb tribute to Liberace! What an amazing, flamboyant, fabulous entertainer he was! So important his memory is kept alive. Thanks for writing such a great article. All the best to you!