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TV Puts on the Glitz for Liberace Movies

Dueling candelabras.

Just as ABC and CBS aired clashing back-to-back movies about England’s Charles and Diana three years ago, so too do details of Liberace’s life vary according to which of the networks is supplying them.

This Sunday’s CBS movie “Liberace: Behind the Music” (9 p.m. on Channels 2 and 8) and last Sunday’s’ “Liberace” on ABC are as different as ritz and glitz.

Coincidentally, the co-executive producer of “Liberace: Behind the Music” is Linda Yellen, a young veteran of these rival-movie wars in that she also was behind one of the Charles-and-Diana films.

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The Liberace movies are just as dissimilar as those two films were. ABC’s encased its gaudy subject in a cocoon of unreality that often bordered on camp. CBS’ vastly superior version, while surely not the definitive biography, at least offers an affecting and sadly moving portrait of Liberace and appears to deal more honestly with many details of his complicated life and death.

From sparkles to melancholia, moreover, Victor Garber plays the lead Sunday with sureness and nuanced credibility, effectively separating character from caricature while portraying the emotional bends of a man who fought to keep his homosexuality from his public. He died in 1987 from complications due to AIDS, his post-mortem becoming a media circus that more than matched his nightclub act.

Written by Gavin Lambert and directed by David Greene, “Liberace: Behind the Music” also delivers some unintended comic comments.

This Liberace seeks companionship in his own face, spending nearly as much time speaking to himself in mirrors (“Everything is fine. You are happy”) as communicating on stage. Your alarm bells are also set off by such phony sounding dialogue as Liberace counseling a young Elvis on the use of glitz

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What’s more, about half an hour into the movie, Liberace Two inexplicably begins speaking effeminately, almost as if he were a different character. Maybe it’s the gold lame.

The ABC and CBS movies both provide generally flattering accounts of a lonely man who was devoted to his domineering mother (nicely played on CBS by Maureen Stapleton) and began his career playing piano in cheap dives.

The differences in Liberace One of ABC and Liberace Two of CBS are striking, however.

Liberace One (played by Andrew Robinson) had a blurred sexuality. Liberace Two is clearly homosexual.

Liberace One’s girlfriend, Joanne, was genuinely sweet and truly smitten; their engagement was halted by her father in response to rumors about Liberace’s homosexuality. Liberace Two’s Joanne is an insincere, opportunistic hussy who hurts him deeply. He breaks off with her after she calculatingly sells the story of their romance to a newspaper, later claiming she was the one victimized: “He was using me! For a front, like Rock Hudson and the others I could name.”

Liberace One’s companion Scott Thorson (who would sue for palimony) arrived on the scene carrying one of Liberace’s dogs that he found outside. Liberace Two’s Scott roars up to the house on a motorcycle after being invited over by Liberace after a performance.

Sexually ambivalent Liberace One eyed Scott as if he were a eunuch. Gay Liberace Two ogles Scott as if he were a chocolate eclair.

Liberace One’s closest companion was his ever-present publicist Jamie James, who is absent from the world of Liberace Two, where the entertainer’s closest ccompanion is his business manager, Seymour Heller.

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The duel here isn’t just between candelabras.

It just so happens that the real Heller is associated with the Liberace Two movie on CBS, while Liberace’s lawyer, Joel Strote, was executive producer of the Liberace One movie on ABC. Heller and Strote have been feuding over control of Liberace’s estate, which may account for Strote being depicted in the Liberace Two movie as nearly ruining Liberace’s career.

Meanwhile, a graying, balding, AIDS-striken Liberace Two slips away in memorably poignant fashion Sunday, still publicly denying the true nature of his illness and asking that his secret be kept until he dies.

Where do fact and fantasy separate? And does it matter here?

At one point in Sunday’s story, Liberace is chided for watching too much TV, most of which, after all, is only fake. “I know,” he answers. “But as long as fake looks real, I love it.”


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