Merle Oberon was an aristocratic-looking Golden Age star probably best known for her turn as Cathy to Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in William Wyler’s 1939 version of “Wuthering Heights.” However, the film to which Liberace refers as the inspiration for his famous candelabra is Charles Vidor’s “A Song To Remember,” a biopic of Polish composer and pianist Fredric Chopin (Cornel Wilde) in which Oberon plays novelist and Chopin paramour George Sand. While the film is dotted with candelabra-bedecked pianos throughout, the scene that most likely is the one referred to is of Sand carrying a lit candelabra up to a piano through a darkened room where a crowd of the Parisian elite are listening to recital they believe to be by the already acclaimed Franz Liszt. However when Sand proudly sets the candelabra atop the piano, the player is revealed to be Chopin, the crowd gasps and he goes on to fame and glory. It’s a pretty campy scene, in a pretty campy movie that now looks, in its recreation of the ornate rococo-style salons of 19th century France, to have had a direct influence on Liberace’s tastes, albeit with fewer sequins. That scene happens at about 52 minutes in, if you want to see it for yourself.
A glancing reference is made, if memory serves in combination with Dom Deluise, to Jim Nabors, the television, movie and variety show actor who was most famous as Gomer Pyle on both “The Andy Griffith Show,” and then later in the spin off “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” Nabors, with his distinctive baritone singing voice, captialised on his TV fame with a successful recording career and even hosted his own variety show, “The Jim Nabors Hour” between 1969 and 1971. A frequent talk show guest in later years, Nabors also took bit parts in several of his friend Burt Reynolds’ movies including “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and “Cannonball Run 2.”
Nabors was dogged by rumors about his sexuality throughout the 1970s, with one of the most persistent being that he secretly married Rock Hudson. Hudson himself addressed the rumor, saying it was the result of a joke taken too seriously, when a “couple of middle-aged homosexuals... every year give a party and invite everyone they know. It’s an engraved invitation and to make it amusing they will say ‘You are cordially invited to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.’ One year the invitation was ‘You are cordially invited to the wedding reception of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors.’” The joke gained such traction that Hudson claimed Nabors and he could no longer be friends, because they couldn’t be seen together. Both were hiding their sexuality from the public and the rumor may not have been true, but it could have threatened them both with exposure.
On a happier note, Nabors, who for the large part of his career had denied being homosexual, recently publicly married his longtime partner of 38 years, Stan Cadwallader, in Seattle, a mere month after gay marriage become legal in Washington state. They both were warmly received at the Indy 500 by fans over the weekend.
Hudson himself is of course referenced in “Behind the Candelabra,” or more specifically the circumstances of his death from an AIDS-related illness, that would foreshadow Liberace’s own passing just a year and a half later. But while to a modern eye it’s almost impossible to see how anyone can have not noticed that Liberace was gay, Hudson’s case was more subtle, with a significant and powerful studio system in place to ensure that their cash-cow leading man’s sexual orientation never leaked out. Indeed, Hudson was almost the archetype of heterosexual manliness in the 1950s, starring opposite that apogee of 1950s femininity, Doris Day in a series of light comedies, and his public persona was so fixed that despite persistent rumors, the post-mortem revelation came as a shattering surprise to many of his female fans.
Hudson’s death did help raise the profile of the AIDS problem, and the race to find a cure began in earnest after the increased flow of funding from charitable organisations and governmental instutions alike, but the stigma of AIDS, and its association with the taboo of homosexuality had by no means abated by the time Liberace was on his deathbed, just eighteen months later. Both Liberace and Hudson remain two of the highest profile of the disease’s early victims, and they both died closeted.
“I’m so glad she’s stopped with all that political stuff and made a nice film with her father” says Liberace to his next-beau-in-line, making small talk about the upcoming 1981 Oscars, and referring to the chances of “On Golden Pond." In fact, Jane Fonda had acquired the rights to the film, a gentle drama about generational conflict and resolution within one family, as a vehicle for her and her father in the hopes it might improve their own strained relationship -- a plan that reportedly succeeded.
As correctly predicted, apparently, by the young man’s mother, Katharine Hepburn would go on to win her fourth best actress Oscar for the film, and Jane Fonda would go on stage to collect her father’s Best Actor statue: Henry Fonda was too ill to attend and died five months later. Fonda herself, once outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnam war, during which she was controversially photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi (for the implications of which she has repeatedly apologised over the years), can be seen as the polar opposite to what Liberace believed in -- himself staunchly conservative despite his flamboyant lifestyle, Liberace always maintained that an entertainer’s function was to entertain, and not to get involved in politics. His reference to Fonda’s political mellowing here seems quite in keeping with that rather reactionary position.
These are the references and nods we picked up on on our first watch, but in a film so meticulously researched and brought to life, we’re sure there are more we didn’t catch. Let us know if there’s something, or someone else mentioned that we could all do with knowing a little more about. In the meantime, here's a link to a recipe for Liberace's Sticky Buns.