What became of Liberace?
We live in the world Liberace created.
Of course, it's not the part of Liberace that he hoped we'd notice.
It's one of those sad ironies where we remember people for exactly the thing they did not ask to be remembered for. People who hope they will go down in the annals of history as gifted piano players instead get noted for their garish displays and personal habits.
Some people ask for this. You didn't see the Marquis de Sade saying, "But I'm a writer first, and a pursuer of deviant sex acts second." But others discover the tragedy of disappearing into their own personae. Sometimes the mask is the only part that survives.
It's also strange how absent Liberace is from the world he created. Flamboyant, glitzy, schmaltzy performers like "Mr. Showmanship" are more the norm than not, now. But Liberace himself is nowhere to be found. You don't find his CDs on the rack (well, who buys CDs any longer, anyway? But metaphorically speaking ) or his image on t-shirts, the way Elvis and Marilyn Monroe still linger in our collective popular unconscious. He is consigned into the Bizarro Rummage Bin of history, with Tiny "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" Tim, even though he spent decades as one of the most highly compensated showmen in the biz.
Elvis survives. But what happened to Liberace?
A biopic of Liberace, entitled Behind the Candelabra, airs on HBO this weekend, focusing on precisely the side of his life Liberace didn't want to dwell on. And it doesn't focus on the piano playing and schmaltz that endeared Liberace to audiences worldwide. It instead dwells on his private life, exactly the thing he was hoping we'd hop over, or take as assumed with a wink and a megawatt grin (do grins come in any other wattage?).
Who is Liberace?
He was a piano-pounding showman who, at the height of his popularity, outsold even Elvis's live shows. His TV show was more popular than "I Love Lucy."
Liberace was born in Milwaukee, Wisc., on May 16, 1919. His real name was the gloriously unpronounceable Wladziu Valentino Liberace. So he shortened it to "Lee Liberace" and then simply "Liberace."
He was the original Lady Gaga. He was an Entertainer with a capital E who traded in spectacle. True, his trademark accessory was candelabras, not sunglasses; his outlandish costumes were befurred and befeathered, not angular and metallic. But like her, he was a fiercely talented pianist with a penchant for onstage stunts and outrageous attire -- and an out-sized persona that blurred into a cult of personality.
"I don't give concerts," Liberace said. "I put on a show!"
Liberace was a performer who entertained his audiences with a persona that was as much an act as his act itself. And it was quite an act. He flew around the stage. He smashed pianos with sledgehammers. He sported outlandish regalia that made him look like a Technicolor Count Dracula.
Liberace specialized in the same sort of gender-bending antics that Lady Gaga has embraced. All the furor about Lady Gaga — is she really a man? What about that photo shoot? — has played out before, with Liberace. A writer in the Daily Mirror called him "the summit of sex — the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She or It can ever want." Sounds like Gaga. True, this was the 1950s, so such words were dangerous. Liberace sued the writer for libel — and won, although the jurors in his case were warned not to watch his Sunday night TV show lest it prejudice them.
But time has not been kind to the Glitter Man. Unlike Elvis or Judy Garland, Liberace vanished into comparative obscurity, except for the Liberace Museum in Vegas that houses his costumes and props. And that closed in 2010.
One moment, you're prancing around on a stage in an outfit that looks like you shot a particularly flamboyant polar bear, the next you've disappeared from the popular consciousness. Nobody remixes his classic renditions of "Moon River." You don't see annual tributes to Liberace or impersonators of "Mr. Showmanship."
Perhaps America wasn't ready for him. Or perhaps he didn't go far enough. Although he did push some boundaries, there was something fundamentally wholesome about him. Liberace endeared himself most to middle-aged women — not screaming adolescents. A reporter quoted one of his fans as saying: ""I love his playing, his love for his mother, and his reverence for God," said the woman. "To my mind he represents what the American home used to represent: stability, refinement and culture." This doesn't quite spring to mind when we picture him today. But they gave him staying power — the same blue-haired ladies who had enjoyed his playing as a young man filled the seats of his extravagant Vegas show in the 1980s. Will Lady Gaga fare so well?
The same crowd that gave him so many decades of staying power vanished immediately with his death and the revelation of what killed him -- an opportunistic pneumonia that proved fatal in combination with AIDS. Now we're left with a movie that focuses on the part of the story he sought not to have to tell. These days, we're all about the life behind the footlights.
But his mark is all over our culture. He had the first bling. "Too much of a good thing is wonderful," he quoted Mae West. He sure knew how to put on a show -- and that went for his life, too.
The Michele Bachmann bodice-ripper
My God, they finally did it.
"Fires of Siberia," a bodice-ripper starring a Michele Bachmann-like figure goes on sale June 1. "Presidential candidate Danielle Powers, full of firebrand pluck and red state sex appeal, has the country in a tizzy. But on an international tour to beef up her foreign policy experience, disaster ensues—her plane explodes over Siberia. Miraculously, Danielle survives, along with one other passenger—a mysterious stranger named Steadman Bass. Trapped in a wilderness of snow and ice, the two begin a journey that pushes Danielle to the brink. There she must confront her deepest self and choose between civilization and a wild, primitive ecstasy," says the description. Er, okay. It's almost as wild a fantasy as Bachmann's statement that the IRS has a "vast database" of our health-care information -- all our "personal, intimate, most close-to-the-vest secrets will be in that database, and the IRS is in charge of that database? So the IRS will have the ability potentially to deny health care, to deny access, to delay health care."
Based on the rest of the publisher's catalogue, as the Atlantic Wire notes, the book is on the border between performance art and straight-up beach read. It includes some interestingly purple prose. When she first shakes hands with Steadman Bass: "They shook hands, and Danielle felt the hot vitality of his blood. His hand was surging with warmth. His fingers were weathered like a workman's, but his touch betrayed a grace and kindness his face otherwise kept guarded. She wanted to stay fastened to him, so essential was the heat." Zoiks!
But it makes one wonder: if this is a success, what other political bodice-rippers lurk in the depths?
"Desert Passions," inspired by Marco Rubio. "GOP up-and-comer Davo Sapphiro has everything -- enthusiasm, youth, and most of his original hair. But on a jaunt to demonstrate the viability of his plan for comprehensive immigration reform, his truck breaks down, leaving him stranded in the middle of desert with nothing but the one thing standing between him and his nationwide ambitions -- Dee Rpark, a talking plastic bottle of water."
"50 First States" inspired by John McCain, where Joe McStick pursues an on-again off-again relationship with the national media. "I will warm to you slowly, lavish attention on you, even come to love you in time," his paramour coos, "just not in 2008." A war hero is transformed into a monster in the eyes of Belle Weather, a member of the national media, by his decision to join the Republican party. But the more time they spend together, the more she comes to see him as a human being. As the flower in the West Wing slowly sheds its petals, will she choose to help or hinder him in 2008?"
"Appalachian Betrayal" and its sequel, "Crying in Argentina," inspired by Mark Sanford. This is not fiction.
"Wide Pumpkin Carriage," inspired by Larry Craig. This is a retelling of the Cinderella story, where a senator must travel the whole nation, across airports and stalls, hunting for the foot that fits the shoe that once tapped memorably for him.
"Cry Havoc," inspired by House Speaker John Boehner. A prematurely orange member of the leadership finds himself stranded on an island with the woman of his dreams. The only catch? To win her heart, he must promise not to shed a single tear for three years.
"That American President," inspired by President Obama. "A president and a New York Times columnist are stranded together on a desert island for several days after Marine 1 experiences engine trouble. At first, he is frustrated by her repeated suggestions that he 'make one of those charts like they had in 'This American President' and 'use the magical powers of the presidency to fix everything that is wrong.' But finally she grows on him, in a novel that reviewers describe as a "Sorkinesque liberal fantasia."'
"The Biden Collection." This is not a novel so much as it is recently unearthed footage of Vice President Joe Biden reading the entire "Harlequin Presents" romance series aloud to himself, pausing occasionally to giggle at weird times.
Wolf Blitzer's awkward atheist encounter
In one of the videos that made the rounds in the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado, Wolf Blitzer, standing amid the wreckage, interviews a woman holding her toddler son and asks her, "I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?"
After a pause, Wolf pursued: "Do you thank the Lord? For that split-second decision?"
"I'm actually an atheist," the survivor replied. Cue awkward laughter from both Wolf and the woman.
"You are? Oh, all right."
"I don't blame anybody for thanking the Lord," the survivor concluded.
This is what happens, people joked, when you try to win easy points in the middle of the country.
It's beyond the awkwardness of a swatted-down high five. It's the theological equivalent of hitting on the one woman at the bar who turns out to be asexual. It's a knife when you were betting on its being one of ten thousand spoons. It's reaching into the drawer for scissors and pulling out the left-handed pair.
The odds seemed so against it. An October 2012 survey found that one in five Americans is religiously unaffiliated, but barely 2 percent of Americans identify as atheists. Even of the religiously unaffiliated, about two-thirds have some form of belief. So to reach into a crowd of randomly selected survivors and draw the one who isn't thanking the Lord -- it's a startling enough moment to make Glenn Beck murmur dubiously on FOX that the whole interview must surely have been some sort of set-up.
It was startling, but it was enough to make you think, for a moment.
Just for a second we got to see how awkward it would be to be unable to sneeze without strangers yelling "Bless you!" It's one nation Under God. It's "God Bless America." It's Pray For The Victims Of . You can't be standing near wreckage without people insisting that you thank some supreme being. It's such a strongly embedded assumption with reason -- almost 80 percent of America is nothing to shake a stick at. But you only notice how often we presume the one time it doesn't work.
Once you notice it, you can't un-see it. It's not just those fish on people's bumper stickers. It's everywhere. TGIF. You can't even be passive-aggressive and Southern without letting "Oh, bless your heart" work its way into the picture. "God Made a Farmer." 711? Oh, thank Heaven. It's so embedded.
She was good-natured about it, at least. Given the saturation of the assumption in our national culture, you would have to be, or by Day 9 it would be unbearable.
He wishes he were a New York Mayor Weiner
As with almost any joke with Weiner as its punchline, we saw this coming from a mile away.
Yup, Anthony Weiner's running for mayor. The "disgraced ex-congressman" (this seems to be his peculiar epithet) has thrown down the glove. No, not that glove, the other glove.
And now we're going to have to hear that sort of joke for months to come. Like cicadas, all the wiener jokes that somehow managed to winter the climate since 2011 are now crawling slowly back into the headlines. "Did you miss us?" they ask. "Hey, has anyone made a joke about Weiner overexposure yet? Because if you haven't, you really should! Oh man, we're going to have so much fun together!"
It's enough to make you want to join the actual cicadas and stand screaming your head off into the long hot summer nights.
The Weiner Mayor Mobile has been circling the block ominously for some time. There was that New York Times Magazine profile, in which, I am loosely paraphrasing here, many of Weiner's oldest friends described him as kind of a jerk, implied he was that obnoxious, too-intense guy who gets involved in politics early, basically said he made Rahm Emanuel seem calm and self-possessed, then hastily added "But he's different now, we think." Hey, he got a new Twitter. That's progress.
The first Oh Score! Mayor Weiner advertisement takes the Sanford approach, where you stare into the camera and admit your error. Hey, it worked for Sanford! Weiner notes, "Look, I made some big mistakes, and I know I let a lot of people down." (Big mistakes, huh?) "But I've also learned some tough lessons. I'm running for mayor because I've been fighting for the middle class and those struggling to make it my entire life, and I hope I get a second chance to work for you."
And why not? The second-chance narrative is hot right now. Voters gave one to Mark Sanford, and Sanford handed out his cell phone number to the entire state of South Carolina and published strange rambles about the right of a son not to watch the Super Bowl alone. Weiner has been transformed into one of those cardboard cutouts at the punch line of national jokes, but at least we know his name, and face, and -- well, name.
The biggest problem with the ad is that its background music makes it sound like one of those pre-flight videos thanking you for flying with American Airlines. When his wife, Huma Abedin, chimes in at the end, you half expect her to announce that the white track lighting leads to red lights that indicate an exit.
But an exit is just exactly what we won't have for the next several months. Maybe it's time. I know the quality of mercy is not strained and droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven -- a sentence I should abandon immediately before trying to connect it to a Weiner joke. We'll finally get our answers. How far does the second-chance narrative go? How many Weiner jokes can we stomach? At least he'll have absolutely no trouble whatsoever with name recognition -- and New York had to deal with Mayor Koch, so they can't say they haven't dealt with a similar problem before.
Some Weiner headlines to avoid
Well, he's back.
He's on Twitter, with his 64-point Plan To Keep New York The Capital of the Middle Class. It's really happening.
And here are just a few of the dozens of headlines I beg you not to use.
- Weiner Back And Bigger Than Ever
- Surprisingly Short Recovery Time For Weiner
- Weiner Dogged By Past
- Weiner or Loser?
- Weiner Stuck Behind Opponent
- Weiner Experiences Growth/Shrinkage In Polls.
- America Has Nothing Funny To Say About Weiner.
- Confronted With Weiner, New York Shudders And Turns Away
- New Yorkers Really Don't Want To Learn More About Changes To Weiner
- Weiner Mobile
- Weiner Comeback
- The Man/Woman Who's Beating Weiner (for later in the season)
- Can Weiner Come From Behind?
- NYC Underwhelmed By Exposed Weiner
AUGGHGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH MAKE IT STOP ANYTHING TO MAKE IT STOP