Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why, Lylah, Why?

I’ve owned a bootleg VHS tape of The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) for some years now. It was on a wish list of films I’d read about since childhood but never had the chance to see. Then a savvy friend provided me with a copy. I confess...after multiple attempts over the years, I finally got through the whole thing. It really is that unwatchable.

With the impressive pedigree of talent involved, it would seem to be a movie any avid connoisseur of camp should love, directed by the great Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Killing of Sister George) and starring the enigmatic and glamorous film goddess Kim Novak (Vertigo)  as well as the brilliant and intense British actor Peter Finch (Network). But the movie disappoints on practically every level.

Elsa Brinkmann confronts the legendary Lylah Clare

The plot is promising: The persona of a long-dead film diva is resurrected for a new biopic when her Svengali-like director and lover Lewis Zarkin (Finch) finds a woman bearing an eerie and uncanny resemblance to the deceased star. And not only does Elsa (Novak) look just like Lylah Clare, she is seemingly possessed by the dead actress’s restless spirit.

Novak, resplendent in Renie gown and Monroe-like Guilaroff flip hairdo
But the film just doesn’t work. It’s a total bore, despite a couple of fleeting opportunities for a flash of Aldrich’s gothic magic. The only scene in the whole film that approaches the master’s best work is the cocktail party and press conference early in the picture where Elsa Brinkmann (stage name Campbell) is introduced to the Hollywood press corps. Here, the great character actress Coral Browne (unforgettable in Auntie Mame and in Aldrich’s own Sister George) makes the most of her cameo as the embittered, disabled gossip columnist Molly Luther. Though Browne returns all-too-briefly in a couple of scenes before the end of the movie, there are two more long hours to get through.

The only scene with any dramatic tension...

...thanks to the redoubtable and wickedly bitchy Coral Browne 
If the movie has any other saving grace at all, it’s the radiant Miss Novak herself. Evoking the essence of legendary screen goddesses like Harlow, Monroe and Dietrich (and naturally, herself!) in diaphanous silk Renie gowns and iconic Guilaroff hairstyles, Novak really gives the part her all, and the moments when the demure Elsa channels the raucous, Teutonic, foul-mouthed Lylah are truly riveting. 

Novak gives a bravura performance...

...but Finch fails to rise above his material

But Novak and company are severely hampered by a meandering script with long, talky scenes that lead nowhere, mostly philosophical treatises on how Hollywood shapes and manipulates reality through popular culture. Attempts at wit and comic irony fall flat, despite the talents of fine actors like Ernest Borgnine as a stereotypical studio head. The ridiculous ending is worst of all, where director Zarkin rewrites Lylah’s death scene, placing her on (not kidding here) a circus trapeze, from out of nowhere. (Things that make you go, “huh?”)

Another strange aspect of this picture is the decision to cast so many female characters with heavy European accents, so thick that you can’t understand a word they’re saying. It’s hard enough to decipher Kim when she affects her throaty Dietrich-esque German accent—but we also have to struggle with the the mozzarella-heavy Italian of both Rossella Falk as Lylah’s lesbian confidante and Valentina Cortese as her ebullient costume designer. (Obviously the filmmakers were counting on European grosses to offset the losses of this turkey, but hasn’t anyone ever heard of dubbing?)

Don't worry, it's almost the end of the movie
In the hands of someone like Aldrich’s brilliant screenwriting collaborator Lukas Heller (Baby Jane, Sweet Charlotte), this might have been a much more satisfying film.  Or perhaps some surgical film editing could have helped the pace of this very uneven cinematic disappointment. As it is, we are left with a few fragmented images and moments that fail to fulfill the promise of a cult classic that elevates a great star to mythic legend.  Instead, it’s on my personal list of Worst Films Ever makes Valley of the Dolls look as if it were written, produced and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.


Ken Anderson said...

I have to agree with you on this one. It's too dull for good camp, and too lacking in even a modicum of professional polish to make good on its deliriously silly premise. I only saw this film rather recently, but having heard of its reputation I was expecting at least a howlingly good time. Not so.
I am always puzzled by affectless Peter Finch can be in some films and so excellent in others. He's really dry here.
Also, you're on the button with all those clashing doesn't feel like Hollywood at all.
However, even when the films themselves aren't up to muster, I always enjoy reading what you think about them and how you voice your opinions. A pleasure!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken, thanks for stopping by to read. Yes, I want so much for this movie to be good, with its A-list cast. promising premise and one of my favorite directors. But it is just a big mess. Another weird touch that doesn't work: filming long black-and-white scenes of Eugene ONeill's Anna Christie (Garbo's first talkie) as the representation of Lylah's greatest role. Couldn't they even give her something new rather than stealing from Garbo? Poor Kim...she is a great star but certainly no Garbo. It's embarrassing....

Thanks again for your support. Like you, I love writing about movies, even ones I don't love...but I appreciate them all as much as you do.

rico said...

I would love to see this film again sometime...
Read somewhere once that Kim Novak's "German" accented scenes were dubbed in by another actress after filming, much to Kim's dismay...the moments do seem to have an "Exorcist" quality to them ; )
Will enjoy checking out your blog!

angelman66 said...

Very interesting, Rico - I would not be surprised if they dubbed Kim's voice as Lylah, as illogical as that sounds. VERY Exorcist indeed!

Thanks so much for stopping by!