There has been so much publicity over the past few weeks for “Behind the Candelabra,” HBO’s biography of Lee Liberace, that I took another look at the best thing Liberace ever did — namely, his brilliant turn as the coffin salesman in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One.” Though the picture falls apart long before it is over, it’s full of wonderful sequences, especially in the first hour.
After Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) loses his job as an art director at a Hollywood studio, he goes home and hangs himself. This leaves his nephew Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse), who’s visiting from London, to make the funeral arrangements. The pompous asses of the British Colony in Hollywood instruct Dennis to inter the unhappy knight at Whispering Glades, the most luxurious (i.e., fantastically expensive) cemetery in Southern California. The scene below shows the unexpected series of indignities and reversals to which Sir Francis is subjected on what turns out to be his last day at the studio. Gielgud plays the evolution of despair beautifully: first we see his jauntiness, then his amused embarrassment, then his bewilderment, then his growing alarm (held in check by his English good manners), then his recognition of the seriousness of his predicament, and finally, his despair.
I’m particularly interested in the long take of Gielgud at the end of the scene. For much of his career, Sir John avoided acting in front of a camera — and indeed it wasn’t until quite late in his career that he learnt the trick of it; in the few British pictures he made in the 1930s — “Disraeli,” for example — he’s worse than merely bad: he’s so pathetically artificial and unconnected to his fellow actors that I flush with embarrassment when I happen across any part of that picture. I’ve decided to accept his early movie career as a collection of lamentable, youthful indiscretions. Perhaps his early failures were a necessary part of his education as an actor. He had the good grace and commonsense to be appalled by his mannerisms, vocal tricks, and especially by his involuntary habit of blinking rapidly — a habit that stayed with him for many decades; he overcame it at some point in the 1960s, but late in his career, the hummingbird blinking returned in some of his television performances. He did very well with Shakespearean roles in 1950s motion pictures. He was a fine Cassius in Metro’s stultifying “Julius Caesar” (1953); he was the best thing in that million-ton block of MGM cement, but he blinked like mad every time he was on camera. A few years later, as Clarence in Olivier’s “Richard III,” he gave another fine performance, but his blinking was still conspicuous and fast as a Western Union telegrapher’s index finger. I’m not sure if he blinked his way through his witty, scene-stealing performance in “Becket” (1964) in which he swanned about as the epicene, malicious Louis VII, King of France. (I really should have another look at “Becket,” but that picture bores the brains out of me.) At any rate, as Sir Francis Hinsley, he doesn’t blink at all.
Sir Francis’ departure from Megalopolitan Pictures is the last time we see him alive; he hangs himself off-screen — exquisite politeness to the bitter end. But since “The Loved One” is a very black comedy, Sir Francis will make a memorable appearance in a later scene. The next time we see the old gentleman, he’s a naked corpse under a white sheet, laid out on a steel table. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More about that in a minute. Immediately following Sir Francis’ suicide, Dennis Barlow drives out to the broad lawns of Whispering Glades to make arrangements for his uncle’s burial. Whispering Glades is, of course, a restricted necropolis (no Jews or Catholics), but they accommodate, without murmur, Protestants who have laid violent hands upon themselves. Dennis’ first order of business is to buy a coffin. And this, at last, is where Liberace comes in. There are several good performances in “The Loved One,” including John Gielgud’s, Robert Morley’s, Jonathan Winters’, Margaret Leighton’s, Rod Steiger’s, and some others, but Liberace’s is the funniest. Surprisingly, it’s also the most accomplished.
The scene below features Liberace as Mr Starker, the chief counsellor in Whispering Glades’ Slumber Room (i.e., their coffin show room).
I don’t think this scene could be better acted. Liberace is hilarious: his choices are specific and witty, but he never comes close to tipping his hand or commenting on the character he’s playing. His Mr Starker is as unctuous as you would expect from a man who wants to sell you his most expensive coffin, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of overdoing it. Indeed, Mr Starker strikes me as far less unctuous than Liberace himself. It’s wonderful to watch how he takes in unexpected information and reacts to it. For instance, when Dennis says he prefers to have his uncle dressed in his own clothes, rather than in the elaborate formal attire Mr Starker hopes to sell him, Liberace recoils slightly and murmurs “Of course,” but can’t keep an edge of contempt out of his voice when he adds, “If you feel that would be appropriate.” This Mr Starker, as Liberace plays him, is a very strange blend of superciliousness, unctuousness, vulgarity and more than a few hints of menace. Liberace is also clever enough to understand that, first and foremost, Mr Starker is a salesman in a very competitive trade. Every moment he spends with Dennis Barlow, he is selling — and a wonderfully hard sell it is, too. Mr Starker intends to sell this young Englishman an expensive coffin and all the fixin’s to go with it. He dutifully displays the less expensive models, but as they are neither “moisture-proof nor dampness-proof,” his scornful opinion of “the middle price range” is evident. It is doubtful many customers have ever purchased a coffin in the middle price range from Mr Starker. Liberace handles the ghastly euphemisms of the Dismal Trade (e.g., “the loved one” (the dead person), “our Silent Night special” (a coffin), “slumber room ensemble” (burial clothes), “exterior designations” (tombstones, candles, etc.)) with amazing finesse. He speaks the jargon better than anyone else in the picture. (In an earlier scene, Tab Hunter, as a Whispering Glades tour guide, does everything but wink at the camera to let us know he’s kidding.) Screenwriters Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern wrote some of the best material for Liberace; Mr Starker is their invention, in fact — he’s not in the book. They peppered Mr Starker’s sentences with funeral parlor euphemisms, then added a few coarse, backroom words not intended for civilians to hear. For instance, while showing the burial shoes, he says it’s “specially designed for the foot at rest. [another euphemism for dead] The foot curls a bit, you know, when rigmo sets in.” It’s a brilliant line, but it takes skill and restraint to play it absolutely straight as Liberace does. His juxtaposition of certain low-class pronunciations with hoity-toity, affected ones is not only very funny, but it adds dimension and peculiarity to Mr Starker. He pronounces “guaranteed” as “garranteed,” but pronounces “vaudeville” in the French manner as “vode-ville,” and speaks of quick change “artistes,” rather than “artists.” As Mr Starker, Liberace performs the seemingly impossible trick of being completely in earnest and utterly insincere, simultaneously.
And here’s another surprisingly excellent performance from the same picture. It’s the best thing Rod Steiger ever did. As far as I can remember, in this picture, Steiger gives the only intentionally funny performance of his career. Like Liberace, he’s completely committed to the character he’s playing and he’s a laugh riot. It seems clear to me that Steiger was all too aware that he was being funny. But he doesn’t wink at his performance, outrageous as it is, and I can’t help thinking that the dirty ham was thrilled to have the opportunity to play games with the face of one of the three or four greatest actors of the 20th century. Perhaps Sir John’s talent entered Steiger’s performance though Mr Joyboy’s busy-working fingers . . .
When we find the corpse of Sir Francis laid out on a steel table, he is in the workroom of plump, bespectacled, marcelled Mr Joyboy (Rod Steiger), who is the head cosmetologist of Whispering Glades. Mr Joyboy is endeavoring, with limited success, to manipulate and reposition the lifeless lips and glassy eyes into an expression of cheerful serenity — as always, with a special emphasis on restoring (artificially and temporarily) the glow of life to dead, possibly rotting, tissue. In this demanding and mysterious art, Mr Joyboy is a high priest; he achieves astonishingly lifelike results by the expert application of clamps, scissors, pincers, nail clippers, fish hooks, sutures, ping pong balls, paint pots, rasps, blobs of molding clay, tubes of glue and all the other implements in the cosmetologist’s toolbox. When a subject responds to Mr Joyboy’s ministrations, he says, “He came up nicely!” Sir Francis presents special problems, because he was delivered into Mr Joyboy’s atelier after rigor mortis had begun to dissipate. Rigor mortis is the cosmetologist’s best friend; adjustments and repositionings made when the flesh is stiff stay put. When rigmo subsides into flaccidity, however, Mr Joyboy faces an uphill battle. Have a look.
I must say, Steiger’s so terrific in this picture, it’s easy to forget what a terrible actor he was. Steiger was such a ham, he couldn’t say a simple line like “I wish I knew” without turning it into a bizarre three-act kitchen sink drama. A few of my friends and I used to see every new picture he was in because it was a near guarantee that he’d be laugh out loud terrible. Yet in this one, he seems incapable of making a mistake — his broadest, weirdest, most artificial line readings (noisily eccentric line readings were his bread and butter) are somehow exactly right. I cannot understand it. Perhaps Tony Richardson was a great director for lousy actors. That might explain why Liberace, of all people, was able to give an amazingly sophisticated performance. Liberace is more than an inspired bit of trick casting; no, he actually gives the sort of performance that a first rate, seasoned comic actor would be proud to give. He plays each individual beat with authority and precision, but he also develops his characterization with a clear sense of the underlying dramatic structure of the scene as a whole, so that Mr Starker’s personality and insinuating creepiness continue to amuse and surprise us long after we’ve recovered from the jolt of hilarity we got from the sudden appearance of Liberace, behind an iron gate, plumping pillows amid a crowd of coffins. He keeps us laughing and guessing till the last beat of the scene. This is not the performance of a flamboyant show-off celebrity pianist; it’s the performance of a skillful actor. When I used to see him on Johnny Carson, he always sounded as if he were reading cue cards or reciting from memory, even while chatting with Johnny. So how did he come up with a comic performance so witty, multifaceted, accomplished and technically sophisticated as the unforgettable Mr Starker? I can’t explain it, but he sure makes me laugh.
UPDATE: I just finished watching “Inside the Candelabra,” which is entertaining, consistently interesting, seldom funny, occasionally disgusting and depressing, and a little less occasionally, more poignant than I ever expected. It’s good, expertly presented pop entertainment, but it is hardly the masterpiece so many critics have claimed it to be. I think Matt Damon is the best movie star working today. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s attractive and he seems incapable of giving a bad or even an uninteresting performance. This performance is one of his best. Why has Michael Douglas been getting so much praise? He’s reasonably amusing and does his damnedest to be fey and flamboyant. I enjoyed his energy and dedication, but frankly, I kept thinking I was watching Tony Lo Bianco impersonate Carol Channing.