Two things strike you watching this 1976 documentary. Firstly, how could anyone not know? And secondly, how desperate for entertainment were middle-aged women in the 1970s that Liberace could have remained a star throughout the decade?
Of course, at the time, screamingly camp men who either didn’t discuss their sexuality or thoroughly denied it were all over the media, at last in Britain – John Inman, Larry Grayson and so on were adored by an audience of women of a certain age who seemed either oblivious to or in denial of the fact that they were gay men. Perhaps the same is true with Liberace. It’s certainly the case that he won his libel case against the Daily Mirror over a nasty bit of character assassination because women on the jury loved him. That case is referenced here, though in neither the original article or the performer’s discussion of it does the word ‘homosexual’ get used – watch this without the background context and you might think Liberace sued simply for being insulted. But watching him on stage here, or being interviewed, it seems impossible that anyone would have thought this was a straight man. Yet they clearly did and he makes couple of attempts to maintain the illusion here as he discusses why he never married. It was, of course, a different time, and you can’t blame anyone for not coming out back then. To condemn Liberace as a fraud is to ignore the very real dangers gay men would face for being upfront about their sexuality – especially gay men who were seen as family entertainers.
As for the stage show – well, while Liberace was certainly a decent pianist, his live shows seem astonishingly poor. It’s sobering to think that he was packing out theatres at the same time as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but of course the secret history of the 1970s is one of easy listening and light orchestrals. If Mrs Mills and James Last could be stars at the time, then why not a man who’s act seems to be little more that glitzy costumes, simplified classics and – most importantly – a rapport with his audience. Make no mistake – the women of a certain age who made up much of his audience loved him and you can see that in the concert footage included here. And he seemed to love them – or was at least entirely comfortable with them and knew what they wanted.
Live footage makes up about a third of this film by Tony Palmer. The rest is like a 1970s version of MTV’s Cribs, as Liberace gives us a guided tour of his homes. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that these are not tasteful abodes. Piano motifs are everywhere, candelabra all over the place and general sparkle and flamboyance everywhere. He gives us a look at his collection of cars (including a white, rhinestoned London taxi cab) and introduces us to his family (a somewhat stilted get together) and his pack of snappy dogs.
No one would accuse Liberace of downplaying his own success, and much of the time here is spent on self-aggrandisement – the important people he knows, the amount of money he makes, the fantastic jet set life he leads. And yet oddly, you get the feeling that this is a lonely man who is possibly aware, at least sub-consciously, that it’s all superficial and that if you took away the money and the fame, the fair-weather friends would quickly follow.
Despite his massive ego, it’s hard to dislike Liberace watching this. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy – perhaps a little vacuous, but without a malicious bone in his body. Even his boasting seems honest – it’s not arrogant in the way that you’d find with modern rock stars on Cribs. He just seems genuinely pleased with his success and thinks we will share that pleasure. You can’t knock him for that.
I’m not entirely sure who the market for this release is – if it turned up on TV, I’d have no hesitation to recommend you watch it, but I’m not sure anyone but the most committed fan will want to buy the DVD… and are there still committed Liberace fans out there? I assume it’s hoping to capture some reflected glory from Behind the Candelabra, but I suspect this is not enough of an in-depth documentary – and to be fair, it isn’t trying to be – to really satisfy anyone who has had their curiosity peaked by that film. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting, hugely entertaining and slightly sad look at a slice of life from the kind of performer who no longer exists.