In this issue we give you a preview of one of the strangest, most interesting, and gaudiest projects of the year: Steven Soderbergh’s May 26 HBO movie about Liberace, the virtuoso pianist whose flair for sequins, jewelry, and capes earned him global fame, his own TV show in the 1950s, and a long reign as a Las Vegas box office king. But Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his 39-years-younger lover, isn’t so much a campy celebration of Mr. Showmanship as a portrait of a doomed relationship.
Turns out things got pretty dark under all those gems and white fur. Liberace has to be one of the most peculiar pop culture creations ever to walk the earth; even into the 1970s and ’80s, a great swath of the public did not suspect that this flamboyantly self-rendered gay stereotype was, in fact, gay. And even as he entered the Vegas stage in blinding fabrics and bedazzled Rolls-Royces, Liberace went to extraordinary lengths to hide his sexual orientation from the public (his friend Betty White has said that she was often asked to serve as a beard) right up until his 1987 death from pneumonia caused by AIDS. His secret was out, but his devoted fans stuck with him, and continued to make pilgrimages to the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas until it closed in 2010. Today he is remembered most for his dazzling persona and odd courage; it takes a real man to wear feathers. Despite the secrets and rhinestones, Liberace remains one of the most authentic entertainers in history. In death he became a beacon of tolerance and compassion, embraced unconditionally by the public he so feared.