To young girls for whom sex can seem scary and unknowable, there’s something ingratiatingly non-threatening about the soft, effeminate sexuality of young heartthrobs like Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, Davy Jones, Corey Haim, Ricky Martin, Andy Gibb, Lance Bass, Jordan Knight, Tevin Campbell, Zac Efron, and Robert Pattinson. These potent figures of fantasy hold out the possibility of soft-focus romance while keeping the messy, complicated realities of sex at bay, even if such figures’ real-life sexuality made those fantasies even more unattainable.
Though occasionally marketed as a sex symbol with youth appeal, Liberace was never a conventional teen idol, but he boasted a similar appeal to women at the other end of the age spectrum. He was a safely impossible figure of romance and fantasy to women of a certain age who swooned to his fancy costumes, extravagant pianos, weakness for candelabras, and soft good looks without having to worry that his flirtatious stage persona might lead to anything untoward or carnal. The money shot for 1955’s Sincerely Yours, Liberace’s only starring vehicle, speaks shamelessly to the chaste romantic fantasies of its star’s disproportionately geriatric fan base. In it, Liberace’s character is singled out as a resident celebrity/musical genius at a swank nightclub by a bandleader who implores Liberace to favor the patrons with a number.
Liberace and Sincerely Yours both know their audience, and pander to them outrageously. So Liberace’s Liberace-like character immediately makes a beeline to a table stocked exclusively by elderly dowager-types, (tourists, perfectly enough) and enthuses, “I love a room like this. It’s so friendly and intimate. I almost feel like I can reach out and touch you.” Then he asks a hefty older woman quaking with bobbysoxer-like jubilation, “Do you mind if I touch you?” When she happily acquiesces, he places a gentle hand on her shoulder, then asks impishly, “Do you want to touch me? Go ahead! Go on!”
When the worshipful, overwhelmed old biddy cautiously touches Liberace’s lower pant leg, he points to his knee and says, “A little higher, honey. Up here is where I start to get the message.” Then he asks the delighted crowd, “You don’t mind if I don’t play for a while, do you? I rather enjoy this.”
When a matronly fan with stars in her eyes pokes at Liberace with intent, it plays like a ridiculous burlesque of pop-star lust with all the danger, electricity, and sex completely removed. This, for better or worse, was as close as any of Liberace’s army of female fans, ancient or otherwise, were ever going to get to consummating their lust for the flamboyant musician. Hell, watching a ridiculous movie where an audience surrogate gets to touch Liberace’s knee was as close as they were ever going to get to consummating their lust for the flamboyant musician. I imagine a lot were fine with that. It’s telling that when a triumphant Liberace “passionately” kisses girlfriend Dorothy Malone, the looks on the old women’s faces shift dramatically from open-mouthed adulation to a queasy combination of judgment and mortification. Leg-touching is all well and good, but actual kissing? That’s going just a little too far for Liberace’s antiquated admirers and for the aggressively chaste Sincerely Yours.
Sincerely Yours begins with a symphony of audience-flattering. It opens with Liberace in a familiar pose: tickling the ivories in a packed theater full of adoring fans, with even more anxiously waiting for his autograph in the rain outside the theater. The crowd is electrified (the crowd is always electrified in Sincerely Yours) but Liberace’s Spidey senses tell him that some of his audience may not be completely riveted by his set list. So he asks the crowd if any of the youngsters in attendance have any requests. (He asks the old woman who touches his leg if she has any requests as well; he’s a people-pleaser.) Then he gleefully acquiesces to a moppet’s demand that he play “Chopsticks.”
It’s Liberace’s crowd-pleasing shtick in miniature: pandering to the tastes of the least-evolved and erasing the divide between high art and populist crap through sheer showmanship. The takeaway is clear: Anyone can play “Chopsticks,” but no one, no one, can play it with the flair of the divine Mr. Liberace. Sincerely Yours posits its hero as a one-man musical democracy. Sincerely Yours begins with Liberace elevating “Chopsticks” to art (or at least professionally performed crap) and ends with him breaking the classical-music-only tradition of Carnegie Hall with a genre-hopping performance that makes a believer out of even the crustiest fuddy-duddies. That’s entertainment, though it’s technically also known as “trying way too hard.”
As Sincerely Yours opens, its hero is intent on proving himself to the classical critical establishment by playing an all-classical set at Carnegie Hall. Cantankerous manager William Demarest (an invaluable member of Preston Sturges’ repertory company and a cast member on My Three Sons) thinks Liberace is getting above his raisin’: “But you play classics now. You also play pop tunes and folk music. You give everybody something. You give pleasure and comfort to the millions. Why should they lose you to the thousands?” Sincerely Yours shortchanges Liberace’s appeal. He doesn’t just give pleasure and comfort to millions; he also gives them a reason to live. Let’s not sell the man and his magical music short. Alas, some greedy folks want something more than Liberace’s life-affirming music. Liberace’s faithful secretary (Joanne Dru) holds a torch for her employer, no matter how many times he breaks dates to see the fights.
When Demarest encourages Dru to make her feelings known to Liberace, she demurs: “I can’t just throw myself at him. He’d only step over me on his way to the piano.” Yes, Liberace belongs to his audience and to his fans, but a man of his outsized passions cannot be expected to lead a monastic existence. Accordingly, Liberace meets cute/creepy with his future fiancée (Malone) when he sneaks into his crusty old piano teacher’s apartment and she mistakes him for the geriatric instructor and performs for him. Liberace plays along, imperiously asking, “Please, my dear young lady. What are you doing to my piano? Teasing it? Flirting with it? This is not a Scrabble board. Where did you practice your scales? Reaching for martinis?” Me-ow!
Liberace’s ruse is uncovered when the real piano teacher shows up at his apartment, but the fires of pure lust have been stoked between Liberace and his heterosexual love interest. A mere 26 hours and two awkward public displays of affection later, Liberace asks Malone to marry him.
For much of its first hour, Sincerely Yours feels less like an actual movie than a filmed Liberace concert with some drama and comic business thrown in. It isn’t until nearly 45 minutes in that the meat of the plot—Liberace’s sudden-onset, career-threatening deafness—kicks in. Finally Liberace is called upon to act, or at least express panic, confusion, and desperation, which he does by bugging out his eyes and letting the gallon of flopsweat on his forehead do his emoting for him.
The great concert pianist can no longer hear the beautiful, beautiful music pouring out of his piano. The life-affirming tunes that give comfort and pleasure to millions are lost on him. That might be a bit of a bummer, except that Liberace quickly learns to read lips, which solves nearly all his problems. As Liberace’s impressed lip-reading teacher hyperbolically informs him, “You’ve overcome a great handicap, Mister Warren. From this day on, you can live a normal existence. Carry on conversations, be with friends. Have a family. Yes, you’re to be congratulated, because with lip-reading, you can hear again!”
Liberace whiles away the lonely hours using binoculars to lip-read the conversations of the folks at a park overlooking his swank suite. In the process, he becomes intimately involved in hilariously melodramatic predicaments involving a big-hearted youngster whose dreams of playing quarterback are compromised by his disability, and a woman too ashamed to introduce her working-class mother to her rich new in-laws. Liberace uses his money and fame to solve these suffering souls’ problems. He pays for the youngster’s operation. In appreciation, the moppet gives Liberace—his hero and everyone else’s—a medal that Liberace clutches to his body when he undergoes an operation to repair his hearing. Whaddya know, the medal works! Liberace’s hearing is restored! The working-class mother, meanwhile, becomes a hero to her daughter and her daughter’s in-laws at a charity event engineered by Liberace.
His problems aren’t over, however. While snooping on the folks below, Liberace sees his fiancée with her new lover, a writer and soldier. The selfless consummate entertainer takes it in stride, however—he inexplicably seems almost relieved he doesn’t have to marry a woman—and admonishes the young lovers to be together and not waste a minute worrying about his feelings.
Liberace ends the film triumphant. He’s finally attained his dream of playing Carnegie Hall, but rather than sticking by its stuffy traditions, he decides to shatter the monocles of the assembled with a raffish display of proudly pandering populism. So, after proving his chops, Liberace closes with an Irish folk song, a polka, and then, climactically, a little soft-shoe! If that weren’t enough to send the die-hards home with a smile, Liberace even gets the girl when he climactically kisses the hard-working secretary who was there for him all along while his fiancée was stepping out on him with a handsome G.I.
Even for a man whose name became synonymous with gaudy, ridiculous excess, Sincerely Yours is hilariously, ridiculously over the top. It’s a film with so many layers of implausibility and contrivance that casting one of the most flamboyant gay performers in the history of show business as the linchpin of a heterosexual love triangle is the least of its problems. Sincerely Yours is the kind of shameless old-school melodrama SCTV delighted in parodying, but an SCTV parody—with Dave Thomas as a dead-on Liberace—would feel redundant, since the film does such a shamelessly effective job of spoofing itself and its utterly preposterous, altogether impossible romantic hero.
Forty-six years after Sincerely Yours died a quick death at the box office and bombed with critics, another closeted gay pop star tried his hand at fizzy heterosexual romantic fantasy, with similarly disastrous results. Like Sincerely Yours, the ridiculous 2001 romantic fantasia On The Line casts its furtively gay lead (’N Sync’s Lance Bass) as a lovestruck romantic who falls hopelessly in love with a heterosexual woman he’s only known briefly.
But where Liberace had 26 magical hours to convince a woman to marry him, Bass has a mere five minutes to make an indelible impression on the woman of his dreams (future Entourage star Emmanuelle Chriqui) when they meet cute on a Chicago el train and form an instant connection rooted in their affection for the Cubs, Al Green’s music, and their ability to name all the presidents in order. Seriously, if you don’t experience goosebumps watching Bass and Chriqui rattle off our chief executives in chronological order, then you either have no soul or are a reasonable human being.
What are the odds that Bass would find a woman who loved the Cubs, in Chicago of all places? Or the music of an obscure, divisive figure like Al Green? It’s not like the two bonded over their love of late-period GG Allin and a placekicker for the XFL’s Chicago Enforcers. Bass is nevertheless instantly smitten, and when he fails to exchange contact information after five life-altering minutes of affable banter with an attractive woman, he decides to take what, in the strange world of On The Line, is considered the ultimate risk: putting up fliers around downtown Chicago seeking out Chriqui and explaining their flirtation.
This is essentially a time-and-labor-intensive version of those “missed connections” personals in alternative weeklies that read something like, “You: attractive woman wearing clothing. Me: guy with headphones behind you at the Starbucks in Lakeview last Thursday afternoon. I bumped into you and said, ‘Excuse me.’ You smiled and may have had on jewelry of some kind. The connection was instantaneous. Let’s meet up for coffee for real this time. Coffee Lover X.” Such ads invariably give off an overwhelming whiff of sadness and desperation, but Bass’ plea to reconnect with a woman he spent several minutes making small talk with is received much differently. A dyspeptic, grizzled newspaper editor decides that the tale of a dude who wants to reconnect with a woman he met briefly is the human-interest story of the century, and demands that one of his writers—a former high-school rival of Bass’, no less—compose an article about Bass’ epic quest.
Soon, the entire city of Chicago is riveted by Bass’ tale. Bass becomes an unlikely romantic hero for his incredible willingness to take a chance. This tendency is considered heroic in On The Line (the title is a reference to both the el train where the leads meet and Bass’ willingness to put it all on the line for what he believes in), when really it’s pretty commonplace. Doesn’t everyone take a chance when they ask someone out? Yet the commonplace nature of Bass’ appeal somehow doesn’t keep his quest from becoming a massive news story spread over days and even weeks by a newspaper that apparently inhabits an alternate universe where nothing even remotely important ever happens, and endless space can be devoted to the romantic yearnings of a hopelessly generic 24-year-old copywriter.
Just about all On The Line has going for it is an air of bland affability rooted in Bass’ genially forgettable, aggressively non-threatening presence. That freshly scrubbed innocence disappears when Bass’ best buddies (his ’N Sync mate Joey Fatone, James Bulliard, and GQ) decide to pretend to be Bass to “screen” the army of voracious, crudely stereotyped women who respond to his flier. These antics are depicted as regrettable but relatively harmless horndog shenanigans, when in reality, tricking vulnerable and gullible women into dates and/or sex by pretending to be someone else is creepy at best, and borderline-criminal at worst.
When their scheme is uncovered, Bass is publicly humiliated, and Bass’ buddies decide to atone for their indiscretions by seeking out Chriqui for real this time. They take to the el to try to find her, and Wafrican-American GQ—the sleaziest and most avaricious of Bass’ friends—favors commuters with a dramatic monologue about how “love may not make the world go round, but it’s what makes the ride worthwhile.” This tugs so relentlessly at the riders’ heartstrings that they spontaneously break into applause, then give the humbled douchebag a standing ovation.
It’s a testament to how little faith the filmmakers have in Bass’ made-for-Disney-TV magnetism that they give him no less than three sidekicks with attention-grabbing shticks: GQ is a douche; Bulliard is a stuffy, book-learning type; and Fatone inhabits a hilariously outdated “rocker” archetype that seemingly died sometime in the mid-1980s. The pose Fatone adopts for On The Line’s DVD cover—rocking out on an electric guitar while waggishly sticking his tongue out at the camera—says everything about his character’s anachronistic nature, as does his idolization of a hair-metal rocker clearly modeled on Jon Bon Jovi, yet played in a climactic cameo by Bon Jovi’s guitarist, Richie Sambora. I haven’t seen such a sad, time-warped cartoon of a totally rocking dude since Lil Wayne in the last Case File.
On The Line isn’t entirely lacking in charm. Dave Foley has an amusingly bizarre supporting turn as Bass’ wheatgrass-addicted boss, and in the film’s finest moment, GQ totally gets hit in the nuts with a baseball. The ball, the groin: It works on so many levels!
In the grand tradition of unthreatening teenybopper entertainment, On The Line is infatuated with the idea of romance and the notion that five minutes of flirting could be the cornerstone for a lifelong love affair. Like Sincerely Yours, On The Line is in the business of audience-service and romantic fantasy un-tethered to even the faintest notion of reality. So when Bass and Chriqui climactically kiss on the el platform at the end, as delighted onlookers swoon in appreciation, we’re unmistakably in the glittery realm of Happily Ever After.
I would have so much more respect for On The Line if it ended with Bass and Chriqui, two forgettable characters who barely know each other, going on one lukewarm date and deciding that a shared affection for Al Green and the Cubs is a pretty flimsy basis for a relationship, especially when one party is obviously gay.
Instead, On The Line ends bizarrely, with the filmmakers breaking the fourth wall for a puzzling closing bit where Bass and Fatone’s ’N Sync bandmates Chris Fitzpatrick and Justin Timberlake play a hairstylist and a screamingly effeminate makeup artist, respectively, fussing and obsessing over the film’s stars. Timberlake’s screaming queen is the only acknowledgment of homosexuality in either film, and his role plays into its starry-eyed fantasy of chaste romance and airy escapism. Timberlake’s flashy, bewildering cameo suggests that homosexuality is something cartoonish and over-the-top that can safely be relegated to comic relief and the margins, not the secret sexuality of a moonlighting star whose time as an unconvincing heterosexual leading man ended exactly where it began.
Sincerely Yours: Fiasco
On The Line: Failure