Jamie, Liberace and Me

Many years after I left Lismore, I remember being back there and going through a box of my things which included a pencil-case from my early years at primary school. In those days, pencil-cases also usually contained pens, textas and rubbers/erasers. They were usually made of vinyl, and it was all the rage to use your pens and textas to cover the vinyl pencil-case in personal graffiti. Generally at that age you would write down the name of your favourite pop group or sports team, or you might secretly write the initials of the person you had a crush on. Imagine my surprise all those years later to discover the seven-year old James had in fact written the phrase, “I love Jamie Redfern” on his pencil-case.

It was through Jamie Redfern that I discovered Liberace. Famously, Liberace came to Australia, discovered Jamie Redfern and invited him to return to America and go on tour. In 2013, there would be outrage at the idea of a young boy going back to America with a middle-aged musician who was gay. Back in the early 70s, however, we were probably all a little more “trusting” than we’ve become in the wake of revelations about paedophile priests and so on.

I suppose in a way I probably did have a crush on Jamie Redfern, the star of “Young Talent Time”. First and foremost I really loved YTT, and Jamie was by far my favourite on the show. He was my answer to Justin Bieber, I guess. I bought all of his records, and strongly remember standing outside in the rain waiting as he performed at the Lismore City Hall.

Years later when Liberace died, and it was confirmed he died from AIDS complications, and years after the famous legal case where he denied being gay, we all knew he was, the media once again took an interest in Jamie Redfern (whose career had, by then, faded into obscurity). Don’t quote me on this, but my re-collection was that Jamie Redfern as an adult said “nothing untoward happened” and that he maintained a great deal of respect for Liberace.

Were it not for Jamie Redfern I probably wouldn’t have discovered Liberace until later in life. But having discovered him, I learned a little about his career, watched a few of his earlier movies on television, and of course took a great interest when he died and when it was revealed, against his wishes, that it was through AIDS complications.

In a similar position, Rock Hudson who died through AIDS a few years earlier, and who had maintained a heterosexual persona for years, finally came out shortly before his death and received a lot of support. Liberace never did that, and as I watched “Behind the Candelabra” today I began to understand the reasons why.

First and foremost, Liberace was from another era. An era where your sexuality remained private and where you didn’t use your celebrity to campaign for issues. There’s one point in the movie where, talking about Jane Fonda, the Liberace character says he was so pleased Jane had forgotten about all of her causes and had made a “lovely movie with her father”, referring to “On Golden Pond”. Liberace was also from a “humble” working-class Catholic family. As I watched the film I got the sense he thought all of the success he had achieved might suddenly disappear, as if he didn’t “deserve” the success he’d achieved. Thirdly, and related to the idea he could suddenly lose everything, was the fact in the 1950s he’d successfully sued a London newspaper which had suggested he was homosexual.

But wouldn’t you think on your death-bed, you might have reached that point of personal comfort and happiness you could at last be honest? Maybe it wasn’t his choice? As portrayed in the film, the manager seems to have had a strong hold on Liberace’s life, both personally and professionally. The manager was the guy who “cleaned up” Liberace’s life when things went wrong in his personal life. Or at least that’s how it’s portrayed in this film which was very much from the perspective of Scott Thorsen, Liberace’s partner for a number of years.

I really enjoyed the film. I thought Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were both excellent in their roles. From time to time I thought they were a little “too camp” but then I remembered – this is a film about Liberace. He wasn’t exactly John Wayne, was he?

I thought the film moved along at a nice pace, and never once did I think “hurry up and die”.

All of that said, I wasn’t really “touched” by the film. I guess the issue was I never felt strongly for any of the characters. Both Liberace and Scott have major flaws, but not the kind of flaws which might endear them to you. They’re both portrayed in the film as very superficial, materialistic, and self-obsessed individuals. That Liberace paid a plastic surgeon to have work done on Scott’s face so he could look more like him is a sign of a strangely sick puppy. And Scott went along with it! And Rob Lowe as the very creepy plastic surgeon who did it! These were all seriously weird people who I failed to understand why they made the decisions they did.

I guess that’s why, despite the strength of the acting, direction, writing and film-making, “Behind The Candelabra” never really moved me.

4 Replies to “Jamie, Liberace and Me”

  1. I only read about half of your article, stopping at the point where you start to describe the movie in some detail. I am waiting to see it at the Sydney Film Festival, so I’m afraid of spoilers…although I guess we all know how it ends. Anyway, very interesting read!

  2. I’d say that James is using the wrong critical apparatus for the film. I wouldn’t expect to be ‘moved’ by a Soderbergh film, and especially not by this one. Is it not partly an exploration of sexual politics at a very specific point in American social history, partly a look at the isolation inseparable from extreme celebrity, and partly a black comedy. In a different place and a different climate, Joe Orton might have written it.

    And isn’t the Jane Fonda reference a little ironic nudge by Soderbergh (or his screenwriter) about the gap between illusion and reality ? If it hadn’t been for Jane, Warren Beatty, Shirley Maclaine, Redford and others loudly (OK, and maybe naively) embracing ‘progressive’ causes, homosexuality would probably still be a capital offence in North Carolina. Poor Lee couldn’t see who his friends were…….

    1. Nice thoughts Mike. Thanks for commenting. I see your point, and I get the reference to Orton, but I still like to feel moved in some ways by film whether it be laughter or sadness or something in between.

  3. Loved the film, enjoyed reading your comments. I remember Jamie going off to America with some sparkly guy, though being young at the time I didn’t know anything about Liberace being ‘gay’ and marvelled at the opportunity he had. Amazing thing for a boy from Oz.
    I think all of them in the film must have had a ball making it!!

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