Toshio Meronek

Liberace Reimagined as AIDS Activist in New Short Film

Filed By Toshio Meronek | May 14, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality
Tags: ACT UP, Chris Vargas, HIV/AIDS, Liberace, Liberación, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Oakland, San Francisco, Steven Soderbergh

As Alex reported in January, somewhere in Hollywood, Michael Douglas is smothering on lip gloss to prepare for a heavy make-out session with Matt Damon. Douglas is set to play Liberace (and Damon his young lover) in the gay-for-pay Oscar bait that is sure to be the upcoming Steven Soderbergh biopic on the flamboyant pianist (due out in 2013). Meanwhile, Oakland artist Chris Vargas is readying his own version, Liberaceón, which envisions the over-the-top music-maker as an outspoken AIDS activist, rather than the closeted Nancy Reagan-lover he was.

Vargas (that's him dressed for the role in the photo) is a homo to be reckoned with among a small-but-inspired circle of young-ish, queer Bay Area underground filmmakers with subversive political agendas. His past projects, Falling in Love...with Chris and Greg (a meta-sitcom in which he stars with his real-life boyfriend, Greg Youmans), and Homotopia and Criminal Queers (a pair of films he co-directed with San Francisco artist Eric Stanley that controversially and entertainingly stab at the prison- and gay marriage-industrial complexes, previously covered by Yasmin) have screened around the world to audiences that are usually appreciative, but occasionally combative (at SF's Frameline Film Fest, audience members walked out in protest of Homotopia's anti-state sanctioned marriage messaging).

Chris spilled about AIDS denial, the closing of the Liberace Museum, and miniature chocolate pianos.

Why the Liberace obsession?

Chris Vargas: I first got into Liberace about ten years ago, after visiting his museum in Las Vegas, which sadly is now closed. The museum housed at least a half dozen mirrored and jeweled automobiles, in which he was driven on stage, and his most famous beaded, furred, feathered, and rhinestoned stage outfits. I found Liberace to be such a charming and stylish entertainer. His stage and screen schtick was so hokey and lovable, and his ostentatious fashion was really off the charts. But what kept me interested were the contradictions in his life.

And one of those contradictions involved his sex life. Liberace was not publicly out, and he even sued a tabloid for implying that he might be gay.

CV: Liberace's glittery rise to fame was due to the simultaneous acknowledgment and suppression of gayness. The wealth that he acquired over his lifetime afforded him a certain measure of outness, but under the condition that he not really be "out." Whether or not it was "legal" to be gay did not apply to him very much: he was a famous and wealthy entertainer. He could go cruising on Sunset Boulevard with his fur capes and toy poodles in tow and have all the gay sex he wanted. He just couldn't give it a name. He figured out how to make money playing the piano and he knew who paid his bills.

Obviously, it was kind of illegal to be gay at the time, but how much of his outward homophobia do you think came from internalized gay shame?

CV: I actually don't judge him for not being "out" and I'm not sure I'd claim that he experienced "gay shame." He was a big flaming homo in public, and I kind of love him for it. Part of what this project is about is dealing with queer icons that don't fit into clean and tidy narratives of pride or shame. As much of an old closet queen cliché as Liberace is remembered to be, I think his story is more complicated than that. The project is about contradictions and compromises. It's also about taking icons and rescripting their stories in the service of current politics. Take Gus Van Sant's [biopic on the assassinated San Francisco politician from the 1970s, Harvey Milk] Milk, for example. I'm trying to put that sort of historical revisionism to a radical end rather than a liberal one.

What kind of research did you do when you were writing the script?

CV: Golly, I did so much! I revisited the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas this past fall, mere weeks before it closed. I read books including the scandalous tell-all memoir, Behind the Candelabra, written by his ex-lover, Scott Thorson. I acquired and obsessively pored over many of Liberace's own books, which have an incredible number of pictures of him, of his belongings, and of his many homes. I use the photos of his interiors as sets in my video. It's all greenscreened behind me as I perform as him.

On the Las Vegas shuttle, from the Strip to the museum, we stopped by his old house. I also visited his former residence in my hometown, the San Fernando Valley -- where he had his famous piano-shaped swimming pool, which you can see on Google Earth. I visited his two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- one for TV, one for music. Finally, I visited his grave at the star-studded Forest Lawn Cemetery in L.A.

I also watched many videos from the ACT UP oral history project website. You see, in my video I make a wildly unlikely connection between Liberace's AIDS-related death and the inception of the queer direct action group, ACT UP. In Liberace's own book, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace, I was really drawn to this one picture that showed Ronald and Nancy Reagan standing over a miniature chocolate piano with Liberace's signature scrawled across the front of it. The chocolate piano was a gift and contained little truffles where a real grand piano's strings would be. Liberace gave this present to the Reagans in 1985, very near to the time when he and his younger lover Cary James both tested positive for HIV. At first I was appalled by this inappropriately generous gesture toward Ronald Reagan, at a time when his malicious negligence of the growing AIDS epidemic was directly impacting Liberace's life. As an increasingly loyal Liberace fan, I just could not come to terms with this fact, so I reimagined the intentions behind this gesture so that it fit better with my own politics. Which is to say, I wanted Liberace to be politicized as a result of the AIDS crisis in America and motivated by anger -- not showering the Reagans with gifts. So I gave history a makeover! The video is in part about accounting for the transgressions and missteps of our icons and role models.

You play Liberace in the film. Did you use any tricks to get into character?

CV: A wig and lots of rings. I also watched lots of his late-career television specials on VHS.

From one showgirl to another, what advice do you have for Michael Douglas?

CV: Don't make bro-y gay jokes in the press about kissing Matt Damon. Oops, too late! Best of luck going gay for that third Oscar, Mr. Douglas.

Liberaceón runs May 20 (special opening screening at 6:30 p.m.) through June 26 at the Berkeley Art Museum. Also on May 26 at Artists' Television Access in San Francisco. Check Chris's site for future showings, TBA..

A different version of this piece originally appeared in the East Bay Express.

img used with the permission of Chris Vargas


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What a great interview, Toshio. Make sure I get a screener of the flick so I can watch it! :)

Thanks! I'll see what I can do about a screener.