When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Performance Anxiety: Liberace in SINCERELY YOURS (1955)

Poor Henry Blanke.

He had the sisyphean task of selling the world on a two hour suspension-of-disbelief in which the über-fey pianist and entertainer, Liberace, had two dishy babes madly in love with him…and in which Lee (as friends called him) reciprocated those mating urges.

Blanke was sort of the St. Jude / Patron of Lost Causes on the Warners lot.  He’s the guy who was given tasks such as crafting star-vehicles for sex kittens when they were unaccountably cast by the studio as pious ladies (Angie Dickinson as a missionary nurse; Carroll Baker as a nun).  Blanke’s the guy who had to turn Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead into something profitable with mass audience appeal and deliver it with a running time under two hours.  He rode shotgun over that orgy of diva temperament, OLD ACQUAINTANCE, passed off Joan Crawford as an erudite and diplomatic Washington congresswoman in GOODBYE, MY FANCY, and then was given the task of transmuting the Gay male lust at the core of James M. Cain’s novel Serenade into a culture clash between a poor señorita and a spoiled rich bitch.

Usually Blanke had well-trained actors and seasoned directors to help him get these projects to the finish line, but in his 1955 Liberace vehicle, SINCERELY YOURS, his director was the undiscerning Gordon Douglas (“Don’t try to watch all the films I’ve directed; it would turn you off movies forever!”) and a rookie leading man.

Nevertheless, just as Tippi Hedren’s stage fright worked on a disquieting level in her acting debut on Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, Liberace’s unease — while crushing the cinematic illusions necessary for audiences to fall into the screen and its story — heightened the Queerness of the movie, making the film supremely Gay despite the pain, sweat and drudge of the other creatives involved.

Liberace plays the celebrated and wildly popular concert pianist Tony Warrin, described by Alex Nichol’s character with this elliptical, crypto-sexual phrase:  “He respects the classics, but from a sitting position — not from his knees.”  Warrin’s personal secretary (Joanne Dru) suffers from unrequited love for him, while Tony dates and proposes to the rich and chic Linda Curtis (Dorothy Malone).  Just as his career and love life are hitting high notes, Warrin starts losing his hearing.  Heavy drama ensues.

Liberace falls for Dorothy Malone.

In the pre-deafness scenes as the chummy, witty and wildly popular Tony, onscreen Liberace is a black hole of charisma, almost excruciatingly unwatchable.  He flunks at his straight camouflage in almost WAITING FOR GUFFMAN dimensions.  There’s a tangible anxiety in his pretending to be straight, which underscores the Art History 101 maxim that a work of art must be understood within the artist’s time and culture.  From an era when an entire empire’s institutions — from media to religion to politics — created a crucible of gender expectations, sending messages that molded many Queer men into grey, shrill neurotics, Liberace gave a performance that came from his own psychology.  Lacking the thespian skills and training to build a hetero character to emote through, Lee’s microcosmic exhibition of stressful overadaptation to be identified as an ‘integral’ part of society (both the film’s society and real society) makes sense on a humanistic level.  The anxiety and anchorlessness he displays in love scenes is not necessarily due to a lack of glandular response nor an absence in theatre training:  gapping the abyss in civilizations where Queerness equaled Otherness was a task at which few could succeed.

[SINCERELY YOURS‘s script unwittingly helps to subvert Lee’s straight cover:  when Liberace meets Dorothy Malone and proposes in less than 24 hours, it comes off more like Homosexual Panic than Love at First Sight — and as a viewer watching their relationship unfold, one is tempted to give into the attitude of the saturnine matron in the corner at wedding parties who remarks, “I give it a year.”]

However, with the onset of Tony Warrin’s deafness — a physical affliction that causes him panic and dissociation where people ask “if anything was wrong” — Lee’s performance aesthetic changes.  SINCERELY YOURS had been made earlier in 1932 (and before that as a silent in 1922) as THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD in which the pianist, while playing for a foreign head of state, was injured as a bomb went off in an assassination attempt, leading to his deafness.  (The 1932 version was notable for seriously starting the movie career of Bette Davis, who played the Malone role.  It was Davis’ first movie at Warners Brothers, beginning a working relationship between the actress and the studio that lasted almost two decades.)  But in this 1955 version, the pianist’s deafness is something organic, something in his body.  There is (in the euphemism of the era for homosexuality) “something wrong with him.”  Tony’s deafness doesn’t originate in a political act, but from some ‘deformity.’  With this plot twist, Liberace’s performance — while still not “good” — morphs into something less bogus, less forced, more immediate.

Tony's realization of approaching deafness.

[The narrative switch in the source of his deafness could have been prompted by the runaway hit from the year before, Douglas Sirk’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, since SINCERELY YOURS also ends with a high-stakes operation which might restore Lee’s hearing.]

Feeling like half a man and unable to be loved, living in an unbreakable solitude due to his aberration [like the psychological attitudes and challenges of Queerness circa 1955], Tony learns to read lips then, with binoculars from his apartment overlooking Central Park, spies on city residents, learns their troubles, and uses his resources to put folks’ houses in order.  As in that minstrel show posing as a reality TV series, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Liberace begins to embody a hetero fantasy of Gay Man as the enabler and handmaiden to the dominant society, a sideline manipulator who ‘contributes’ but keeps himself out of the mainstream and out of sight (just as the Queer Eye guys never got to take a bow or receive thanks but merely watched the fruits of their handiwork from a remote locale).

High drama and tender romance float in color fields of salmon and ecru.

Unlike MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, the Rock Hudson comedy from the 1960s that gently poked fun at his homosexuality, the above-the-liners in SINCERELY YOURS tried way too hard to make Liberace a chick magnet:  schoolgirls adored him, smart women fell for his charms, and fawning Margaret Dumont-type dowagers swooned over him.  I wish instead Henry Blanke and company had made a movie where Lee and Franklin Pangborn ran a Mojave Desert gas station, with Iris Adrian running the diner across the highway where Lee played piano every night.  (If they had to butch him up, let him be an auto mechanic instead of sweeping the mega-hot Dorothy Malone at her sizzlin’ prime off her feet.)  I can see the gas station movie very clearly:  an eloping couple played by Guy Madison and Rita Gam break down near their station and Lee offers to give Guy a free ring job as a honeymoon present.  Iris gives Rita marriage advice:  “Listen, honey, marriage is like driving down this highway — if you’re not careful you’ll end up with a shot suspension.”  They should-a made this movie instead of SINCERELY YOURS … maybe calling it LOVE IT OR LUBE IT.

To get a sense of Lee’s SINCERELY YOURS persona, here’s a clip (that could take a while to load):

Doug / PoMo Joan

Related posts:

13 Comments to “Performance Anxiety: Liberace in SINCERELY YOURS (1955)”

  1. I enjoyed this piece a lot. Thank you, Doug.

    Dorothy Malone had something of an, um, ministry at this point, offering herself as love interest for gay male performers: Tab Hunter in BATTLE CRY, Rock Hudson in WRITTEN ON THE WIND. She’s also in another Henry Blanke picture of the period, YOUNG AT HEART, where — significantly — a YouTube excerpt has her tersely saying “Poor Bob … I never made him happy.” Hmm. Of course Malone later went on, with Blanke as producer, to play Diana Barrymore in “Too Much, Too Soon.”

    I’m worried when you come within inches of defaming Blanke. Any producer who gave us “The Fountainhead” *and* “Beyond The Forest” *and* “Mystery of the Wax Museum” should be praised for his presentation of realistic, subtle sexuality.
    All this plus Mary astor in “The Great Lie” and Fatye Emerson in “Mask of Dimitrios, too …

    I like the sound of that final film you hypothesize. What it put me in mind of was a sort of reworking of “Shack Out on 101,” now turned into “An Artful Little *Boite* Off 101.” Only, y’see, it’s run by Liberace and Ida Lupino (in an unofficial reprise of her “”Road House” role). John Kerr or, say, Anthony Perkins shows up, and they battle as to who will be the young man’s musical mentor. You can take it from there.

    Thanks again.

    • Doug says:

      Of course, Chris, I shoulda known that you were a SHACK OUT ON 101 aficionado too. Let’s see, in ‘SHACK’ Terry Moore’s character was called “Tomato” and Lee Marvin was “Slob.” What would be the handles of Lee and Lupino’s characters?

      I still haven’t seen YOUNG AT HEART, even tho’ I think Doris Day is a great vocalist, Dorothy Malone burns up the screen and (as another sister) one of my favorite character actresses appears: Elisabeth Fraser. But I’m such a *huge* fan of the original, non-musical Mike Curtiz film, FOUR DAUGHTERS, that I don’t think it’ll ever compare.

      I do admire Henry Blanke, for all the reasons you stated… plus the martini-dry Bette weeper, WINTER MEETING, and such glories as TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and THE NUN’S STORY. I mean, the guy really knew how to roll up his sleeves!

      Glad you liked the post.

  2. Marilyn says:

    What a true oddity from a very odd time in Hollywood history. I love your sociological approach to the task facing Liberace et al, an unwinnable one at that. But the film and Liberace’s subsequent career, exemplified by the above clip, may have succeeded in butching him up sufficiently for some of the more innocent ladies in the audience. One was my mother. She decried to me Boy George and his use of make-up as something of an abomination. I threw her love of Liberace back at her – she honestly did not know he was gay.

    • Doug says:

      It means a lot that you liked my approach to this film, Marilyn. I could never understand how Liberace’s gayness could be under the radar to many. But we all have our windows of reference. Or to quote RULES OF THE GAME: everyone has his reasons…

  3. [in response to Doug]

    As far as nicknames are concerned … perhaps Lupino can be called “Furrow” (for her troubled forehead) and Liberace “Drool” (for his moist smile).

  4. Kevin Deany says:

    Doug, I really enjoyed this write-up, though I’ve never seen the film. I like Gordon Douglas as a director more than you, if only for “Them!” I also was impressed with the staging of some duel scenes in his Jim Bowie movie “The Iron Mistress” with Alan Ladd.

    My favorite Liberace memory comes courtesy the Academy Awards ceremony. Was it in 1981 or 1982? He was on to perform selections from that year’s Original Scores. He told the audience something like (can’t remember the exact words), “You may wonder what I’m doing here. Well, I’ve done a lot for the movies. I stopped making them.”

    • Doug says:

      Thanks, Kevin. Actually I’m a big fan of THEM! and have waited most of my life for a tribute album where various artists tackle the drunk guy’s song, “Make me a sergeant; give me the booze.”

      I haven’t seen THE IRON MISTRESS since I was a kid but I do remember it having some good moments too.

      I love the Liberace quote. There’s nothing quite like a self-effacing remark that packs a lot of truth!

  5. […] an analysis of the gay subtext in “Sincerely Yours,” go here . My colleague Linda Stasi’s formal review of “Behind the Candelabra” is […]

  6. Patty says:

    In 1962, while on vacation at Grandma’s house, I watched “Sincerely Yours” when it aired on KHJ-TV Million Dollar Movie — back-to-back, day after day. As a nine year old girl, not knowing anything about “gay”, Liberace was my first serious crush. I’d watch the movie then go outside to roller skate only to be informed by my younger sister that “La Cucarachi” was on again; off came the skates and back into the house to watch again. I endured the shaking heads and gentle “needling” of grandmothers, aunts, and older cousins–puzzled and not getting where they were coming from. I was enthralled with the piano playing, mesmerized by Liberace. To this day, I delight in watch “Sincerely Yours” and maintain that it’s better than most give credit for. It’s a decadent cheesy treat!

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for posting, Patty! I loved your comments. I have to admit that when I was a kid I also loved this movie. The whole notion of a musician going deaf was so ironically tragic! I remember one Saturday afternoon at a birthday party, wishing the clown would finish performing, and hoping someone would turn on the TV because SINCERELY YOURS was on the air!

  7. Penny Meadows says:

    I really love Liberace. Who cares what his sexual orientation was! He was a very good man to all those he knew (NOT in the biblical sense). Have some respect for a human being as a human being.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t see my piece on Liberace as a hatchet job, but instead I try to address what is almost-gymnastically avoided in this film: his sexual orientation. I believe that what I’m trying to get at is that being gay at that time and in that culture was horrifically frightening, dangerous and frustrating. And I therefore try to couch Lee’s performance and his self-awareness within that era so that we can understand and get deeper meaning, instead of passively consuming the film.

  8. […] Liberace’s overt lack of ardor what Doug Bonner at the Boiling Sand blog calls the star’s “tangible anxiety in his pretending to be straight.” (I recommend Bonner’s essay for an astute Queer reading of this film.) Though I think even […]

Leave a Reply

Theme by Max is NOW!
Powered by WordPress