The first of two made-for-TV Liberace biopics aired within a week of each other, this version proudly proclaims it is the only one authorised by the entertainer’s estate. Herein lies the film’s main problem. By basing the story on Liberace’s own personal recollections and interviews, Liberace ties itself in knots adhering to the falsehoods he felt necessary to maintain.
Having a much-needed break during his last appearance at Radio City Music Hall, Liberace looks at himself in his dressing room mirror and asks “What’s really the truth here? What people are saying or what you’ve always believed?” Choosing the latter, the film flashes back to 1934 where he is deflowered by a female singer named Miss Bea Haven (we’re not making this up!). After promising his mum he’ll find a nice girl and settle down, Liberace begins a relationship with Joanne, a much younger woman he meets in church. At about the same time he befriends Jamie James, a fan from Texas with whom he literally dips his toes into the water.
Taking its cue from its subject, Liberace continues to skirt around the issue of the pianist’s sexuality. He is upset that a prospective father-in-law succumbs to the rumours; outraged by Confidential magazine’s story of a same-sex affair; and indignant when sued for palimony by former chauffeur Scott Thorson (depicted as the villain in this film). When a reporter asks him directly if he is a homosexual, Liberace pivots, stating that he has a general family audience appeal and doesn’t want a gay following. Amongst the film’s rare accomplishments is its non-judgemental depiction of this reciprocal relationship with his adoring fans.
The other standout feature is Andrew Robinson’s splendid performance in the title role Possessing a natural speaking voice not too far removed from Liberace’s oft-impersonated nasal whine, Robinson provides an impression of the entertainer, rather than an outright impersonation. It is a sympathetic portrayal mired in a film undeserving of its nuance.
as Joanne Rio
Film flashes back to 1934 to find Liberace accompanying a singer performing “The Man that Got Away", a song that was not written for another 20 years.