Liberating Liberace

The forbidden outpost: Is Liberace, the Columbus of camp, trying to tell us something?

You're barely a minute into Liberace's 1978 TV special, Leapin' Lizards It's Liberace, before you're wallowing in it. Wouldn't do to keep the customers waiting. We first see Lee, as his friends called him, plinking the ivories in his mansion--in his bedroom; in the tub; along the wall of his pool; on a cake; even in the center of his walk-in closet--before he's whisked off to the Hilton in the diamond-encrusted, "88 Keys"-plated limo that delivers him onto the stage. His driver, a piano "virtuoso" named Vince Cardell, winged perm frosted with gray, looks like an aging gigolo--handsome, with a very '70s hot-tub/Mac Davis chic.

Hopping out of the car, Lee confides to the crowd in best folksy manner that his ridiculous automobile "really stops traffic when I shop at Safeway." And then...then it's time for what we've all been waiting for, the real showstopper, the talent that shot him from New York drag bars to stardom on the budding Vegas strip in only four years: Yes, it's the first costume change, before he's even broken a sweat! It is spectacle as artistic principle, excess as worldview, fabulousness for the sake of fabulousness. "Let me slip into something more spectacular," he purrs, and damned if it isn't so.

But, to inquire politely, just what the hell is going on here? Dead since 1987, Wladziu Valentino Liberace is bangin' and grinnin' all over again on three videotapes available from Rhino: In addition to Leapin' Lizards, there's a Valentine's Day special and a concert with the London Philharmonic. The box set comes in a sparkly case with a nifty fold-out Lee dancing atop a keyboard; and over the top is clearly the way to go. But what's really for sale is a fascinating then-and-now glimpse at the vagaries of gayness in mass entertainment well before the age of Ellen.

The earliest of these concerts is nine years after Stonewall, but to the leisure-suited armies who made the Vegas pilgrimage, the drag queens rioting in Greenwich Village might as well have been walking a catwalk in Moscow. The segments of the audience we can see suggest that even the crowd's hippest members weren't having much truck with this whole '70s thing. (It's not hard to figure why the world's supreme blue-haired granny, England's Queen Mum, was a devoted Liberace cultist from his first visit to the U.K. in 1956.) And the mob bosses who paid Lee's salary certainly didn't want any of that fairy stuff messing with the bottom line. So the whole project sounds unpromising, to say the least: Liberace as the gay Uncle Tom, bowing and scraping for the straight folks' delight.

Yet little glints of queerness keep shining through. "I'll tell you one thing about this outfit," Lee smirks while done up in full fabulousness: "You'll never see anything like it on Grizzly Adams." With waters ejaculating mechanically behind him, he expertly treads the line between in-joke and self-parody, his identity dancing briefly into sight and then slipping away before you can pin it down. He plays a stripper's bump-and-grind while taking off his robe; tells Lola Falana and Sandy Duncan to "come in with your big cadenzas"; asks older women to feel the fine cut of his pant leg, then pleads "do the other one; I don't want to be frustrated"; says Lee is "one of my nicer nicknames--I have others." What are they? What does innuendo mean when it's delivered by someone who clearly will never follow it up? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

There's a real expertise here, one honed over years spent calibrating just how much you can imply without bringing down the wrath of bigots and homophobes. Sure, he's different, his fans always argued, but not, you know, weird or anything--just sort of...odd, like (insert name of bachelor uncle here). And seeing him toe that line is heartbreaking and enthralling at once: heartbreaking because you grieve for a career, for an emotional life spent orbiting such a limited space; enthralling because the world rarely displays such a degree of expertise anymore--it's as quaint as watching an ace telegraph operator tap out his lost trade.

Exploding into dimensions beyond bathos, Liberace is the Columbus of camp, a discoverer of worlds where cheese, sincerity, and parody merge into some unholy trinity in which no one, probably not even Lee himself, can tell joke from truth. As his favorite Mae West quip had it, "Too much of a good wonderful!" (And by the way, a mere 20 bucks buys a snazzy shirt at the Liberace Museum in Vegas bearing that motto.)

What is too much? Put it this way: He dares to start a medley with "Send in the Clowns," a strong contender for the coveted post of corniest song of all time, then adds insult to injury by having a little clown mannequin walk out onstage, blow up a balloon, laugh, cry, and, most horrible of all, cavort. And, well, it works...or you surrender, which amounts to the same thing. By show's end, he has pretty much had his way with you.

Of course, no one would willingly revert to the world of "Friends of Dorothy" code and innuendo today. (Which is not to say that such skills have been rendered totally irrelevant: What is Frazier's Niles Crane but an upper-middle-class Liberace--invisible Maris, opera queendom, and all? Or Will & Grace's Jack, a Lee who dares speak the name of his love?) But before--or even after--we glory in being here, queer, and used to it, attention must be paid: There's an art and a nerve to Liberace's performances that demands respect. After all, he survived Anita Bryant's America, not Ellen De Generes's (much less Gregg Araki's). His world wasn't that far from the one where reputable newspapers printed the names of men nabbed in raids on gay bars, or where more government employees were hounded out of jobs for being gay than for being Communists.

But don't take my word for it. Consider Liberace in light of a surprising boomlet for the culture of closeting, one written by its survivors. In last year's The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, essayist Daniel Harris mourned the passing of old-style gay porn; recognizable humans getting it on, he argued, have been replaced by robotic constructs like Jeff Stryker going at it with mechanical efficiency. This fall brought literary critic D.A. Miller's Place for Us (Harvard), an elegant little hymn to the grand subtextual tradition of classic Broadway musicals--"a somehow gay genre, the only one that mass culture ever produced." Broadway, he writes in words that could just as well describe Liberace's one-man theater of the closet, "denominates those early pre-sexual realities of gay experience to which, in numerous lives, it became forever bound: not just the solitude, shame, [and] secretiveness by which the impossibility of social integration was first internalized; or the excessive sentimentality that was the necessary condition of sentiments allowed no real object; but also the intense, senseless joy that, while not identical to these destitutions, is neither extricable from them."

So give Liberace his due. Today he may read as painfully old and tired, an extinct species fighting a battle that's been mostly won. Seeing him sing "I'll Be Seeing You" for what must be the 10,000th time, winking and smiling at an audience that would be horrified to actually know what "you" meant for him, is a taste of true misery. But think of Liberace instead as a spy in the enemy's camp, and your view brightens. Going onstage every night must have felt like that to him: simultaneously a dance with career death and an exhilarating adventure in speaking up, even if no one could say out loud that they heard.

When you enjoy the plethora of gay characters mobbing the tube these days, spend a minute honoring those who helped win the airwaves for them. Luxuriant, fabulous, and everything else he was, Liberace did as much as anyone to boldly go where no (gay) man had gone before--all without ever leaving his closet.

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