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.
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.
[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).
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