Thursday, 18 July 2013


As the subject of a new biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (HBO's Behind the Candelabra, Dir.Steve Soderbergh) this month's Iconic Picture features one of America's most outlandish and successful showbiz entertainers - Liberace!

With his trademark diamond rings and ornate grand pianos, topped by a candelabra,  Liberace (born Wladziu Valentino Liberace) was the 'King of Bling' long before that term was ever coined.

Although the young man with the toothsome smile from Wisconsin displayed an early and prodigious talent as a pianist (he could easily have had a successful career on the classical circuit), it wasn't long before he was adapting the works of Chopin and Liszt and replacing the 'boring bits' with 'pop bits'.  He was also adding to his act with a growing wardrobe of white tails and gold lame tuxedos matched by an ornate grand piano and his trademark chandelier and grinning smile.

His sense of showmanship had an irrepressible chutzpah and eventually most cynics and detractors were dazzled into submission.  The serious critics threw terms like kitsch and gauche at him.  Some, even hurled them as terms of abuse, one journalist swooping low enough to term him 'a winking, singgering, scent-impregnated, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love'.

Well, it was all water off a duck's back as far as he was concerned, and in the case of that last remark he famously 'cried all the way to the bank'.

So, in our Iconic Photograph, we find Liberace at the height of his powers.  One of America's highest earning stars,  famous the world over and there he is in the most outrageous re-imagining of a Louis XIV bathroom, such as would make the palace at Versailles seem utterly drab.

It's all pastiche this picture, recalling the great days of Hollywood when glamourous and sexy stars would appear in their gold-plated, mirrored bathrooms, their dĂ©colletage veiled by voluminous folds of bubble bath foam.  The difference here being that this is a somewhat barrel-chested man in his sixties.  A confirmed bachelor ('he never married', as they say) taking a bath with all his jewellery on and wearing somebody else's hair.

The thing about Liberace is that he knew not to take himself in the least bit seriously.  His act was based on a huge, big joke, and as an astute and canny business man he calculated that the more outlandish he became, the bigger the laughs and the guffaws of his adoring fans, not to say his credit at the bank.

It's almost as if to witness a man-child making up for all those nascent years when he never got his own doll's house to play with.   But wait, let's not over analyse this.  Notice also the sparkle in Liberace's eyes and the air filled with shiny bubbles.

Purely and simply, this is self-mockery on a glorious scale and no one is enjoying the send-up as much as the entertainer himself.  This is why sell-out audiences always laughed with Liberace rather than at him.  Anyway, he knew too well to laugh at himself first.

There's an added poignancy to the picture also in knowing, as we do now, that the entertainer was headed for troubled waters.  His chauffeur, Scot Thorson, would sue him for palimony in a very public case while about 1985 he would be diagnosed as HIV positive, culminating with his death in 1987.

Still, his spirit lives on and there's no doubt that he gave the lead to the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Freddie Mercury and Britney Spears who were able to exploit their more outlandish sides because Liberace had gone before them.


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