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Legend of Lylah Clare, The (DVD Review)

31 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Kim Novak, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine.

As legend has it, producer/director Robert Aldrich made so much money off 1967’s The Dirty Dozen that he was able to buy his own movie studio. Then a subsequent string of commercial underachievers (some of them good movies, like Ulzana’s Raid and Emperor of the North) forced him to unload it; Aldrich didn’t have another big hit until 1974’s The Longest Yard.

This Kim Novak camp fest — correctly termed a cult movie in critic/historian Danny Peary’s widely admired A Guide for the Film Fanatic — launched the cycle and did the actress’s career some serious harm. Just one year later she was headlining one of more insignificant and obscure major studio releases of the decade: The Great Bank Robbery, opposite Clint Walker and his chest.

Talky and way overripe but with a distinctively “funny” flavor all its own, Lylah deals with the Hollywood myth-making machine in the manner of Sunset Boulevard and Fedora, both by Billy Wilder. Employing four screenwriters (including Hugo Butler, who had some good credits, including The Prowler), it deals with a has-been film director on the comeback trail (Peter Finch as Orson Welles? Nicholas Ray?) who’s trying to float a biopic about Ms. Clare, a legendary actress. She had been his one-day wife, even though her ubiquitous on-the-make confidante/dialogue coach (Rossella Falk) had a way of confusing the issue. On their wedding night, Lylah is still said to have died in an at-home staircase mishap that further involved a sexual pickup who was either a guy, an in-drag woman or neither. It’s tough to take any of this seriously because the continuing flashbacks that explain the incident are among the most clumsily staged and scored of any I know, real howler bait.

Yet overall, the movie has a sustaining dose of that elusive “something” (it is not the same old thing). Finch’s sporadic rants anticipate some of his Network dyspepsia from eight years forward, and if you’re going to cast someone as a studio-head vulgarian — was this Aldrich’s version of Godard’s Contempt? — who better than Ernest Borgnine? Coral Browne, sporting a prosthetic leg, is apparently “doing” Radie Harris, a physically handicapped entertainment columnist of the day who was, Dustin Hoffman has said, the first person to tell him (after a pre-release screening of The Graduate) that his life was never going to be the same. Meanwhile, Novak is also doing someone (or a mix of someones) — though given that Lylah is seen here in an old black-and-white movie clip of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, Greta Garbo obviously comes to mind. Then again, we’re told that Lylah was plucked from a brothel and in her formative years, so there is some, uh, embellishment of Hollywood legend.

In perhaps half-a-nod to her earlier dual characterization in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Novak additionally plays the bookish-looking unknown picked to play Lylah — and in key emotional moments, becomes more or less “possessed” by her subject, spouting insults in guttural cadences that almost suggest Linda Blair in The Exorcist. (And as was the case with Blair, her voice sounds dubbed.) In one bizarre scene that’s apropos of next-to-nothing, Novak strolls outdoors amid conversation in full brassiere mode with her sweater or blouse draped around her neck as a sweaty hunk landscaper plies his trade on the estate. Sometimes, you don’t know what Aldrich was possibly thinking – and on this note, wait until you see the movie’s concluding explanation point.

Then again, anyone who purchases this on-demand release is likely to be someone who already knows the movie and has feverish awaited it for years; its reputation is fairly notorious. This is one difficult folly to reconcile with The Dirty Dozen, but Aldrich’s career was never that easy to pigeonhole. And, in fact, the same year as Lylah, he also did once 'X'-rated The Killing of Sister George (with the return of Coral Browne). So though 1968 was for a many a year of discontent, a year of revolt or a year of Nixon-Agnew, for Aldrich it was the year of Major Studio Lesbians, which was some kind of breakthrough.

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