Mention Liberace and many words spring to mind before "tasteful."
That, however, is exactly the word for ABC's two-hour movie biography of the flamboyant entertainer, airing Sunday.Liberace (Sunday at 8 p.m., Ch. 4) is ever-so-careful with the image of the performer, who died in February 1987 of complications from AIDS. That's due no doubt to the fact that this production was sanctioned by his estate and allowed to use his fabulous home, cars, costumes and jewels in the filming.
Another Liberace movie will follow a week later on CBS.
The ABC version is insistently simplistic and adoring, even while constantly raising the question of his sexuality. Liberace always denied he was a homosexual and his spokespeople always denied he had AIDS.
The movie strongly hints that he was gay and does make plain that he died of AIDS.
Andrew Robinson stars as Liberace. Rue McClanahan plays his mother. John Rubinstein plays his long-time confidante, Jamie James.
Robinson's Liberace - inexplicably a dark brunette throughout the movie even though Liberace was fair-haired - is kind, gentle and good, dedicated to his public and his beloved mother. His sexual preference is a nagging, unspoken problem.
When he announces his intention to marry a young woman he has met at church, Jamie abruptly excuses himself from the room. The woman's father calls off the wedding because of "rumors" and fears that Liberace and his daughter would never produce grandchildren.
Years later, when Liberace's sister-in-law surprises him by setting him up with an adoring female fan, he rushes from the room in embarrassment.
Scott Thorson, the companion and employee who filed a palimony suit against Liberace in 1982, is portrayed (by Marius Valainis) as an opportunist who turned on Liberace after he was fired. As Liberace explains the relationship to Jamie, "It's something about strays, about being needed."
At one point, after the Thorson affair becomes public, Liberace is asked point-blank by a reporter if he is homosexual. He answers the question by saying he doesn't believe "that entertainers should publicly air their sexual or political tastes."
But he adds, "with a name like Liberace, which stands for freedom, I'm for anything with the letters L-I-B, and that includes gay lib."
If the filmmakers wanted to avoid dwelling on Liberace's love life, they could have spent more time on his music.
There are several musical numbers - Mike Garson was the piano stand-in, though Robinson does a good job of faking it - but Liberace's proficiency at the piano seems to be maintained magically, since he is never shown to have any particular passion for the instrument.
Instead, there's shallow pop psychology. For instance, his musician father walked out on the family just before Christmas, so Liberace was determined that every Christmas thereafter would be happy. And trivia - he first saw a candelabra on a piano in the movie "A Song to Remember."
To its credit, the movie never aspires to be anything more than an affectionate portrait of a kind man who gave his all, and the best scenes are in the concluding montage: a triumphant Liberace performs an exhausting sellout run at Radio City Music Hall in 1986, while backstage he struggles against the disease that will kill him within months.
At one point, he admits to Jamie that he regrets never having had children, even though he always said his 21 dogs substituted for them.
At the end of the movie, the words appear on the screen, "Wladziu Valentino Liberace died from complications relating to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome on February 4, 1987."
This is followed by a brief epilogue in which Robinson, as a young Liberace, comes out and sits at a piano lit only by the candelabra. "I'd like to be remembered as a kind and gentle soul who made the world a little better place to live in because I lived in it," he says. Then he blows out the candles one by one.