Wednesday, March 10, 2010
All You've Learned
A few nights before the Academy Awards I decided to prepare for the occasion by once again watching 1966’s THE OSCAR starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer and Tony Bennett. Deadly serious and almost unbearably funny from the first scene to the unforgettable finale it has to be one of the most entertaining bad films of all time. I should write about it some day. Late at night after the actual awards ended, when I was completely worn out from all the nonsense of the evening, I decided to wind things down with a considerably more bizarre 60s foray into the dark side of Hollywood, Robert Aldrich’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE, released in 1968. It probably isn’t a stretch to call it one of the stranger films to ever come from Hollywod, let alone one of the stranger films about Hollywood, but that would probably make it sound better than it is. It’s still interesting enough, not to mention bizarre enough, that just trying to figure it all out after seeing it again makes me want to write about it for what marks my 400th post on this site. By a strange coincidence, the great Joe Dante’s essential and addictive site Trailers From Hell which features a variety of directors doing commentary on a wide range of film trailers from all eras, recently ran its 400th trailer. I don’t think they’ve covered THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE yet but considering a few of the films that have turned up there they’ll probably get around to it sooner or later. For now, I’ll just write about it because if I don’t try to figure out THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE then who else is going to?
When aspiring actress Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak) who bears an uncanny resemblance to legendary movie star Lylah Clare (a fusion of Monroe, Dietrich, Garbo, Harlow and probably others), who mysteriously died twenty years ago, the icon’s director and husband Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch) decides to press forward with a revealing biopic on the star, making what is to be his first film in twenty years. But as he presses forward with transforming Elsa into Lylah with dying agent Bart Langner (Milton Selzer) dialogue coach (and former lover of Lylah’s) Rossella (Rossella Falk) and studio chief Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) who all once knew Lylah around them, Elsa begins to uncannily resemble Lylah in behavior as well as looks. Secrets surrounding Lylah’s mysterious demise begin to come out as Zarkon falls in love with Elsa—or is he just still in love with Lylah?—and it begins to seem as if history is about to repeat itself.
The genuine weirdness of the mood that the film gives off sticks in the mind long after seeing it but very few of the specifics of what goes on ever do outside of a moody opening credits sequence featuring Kim Novak wandering down a deserted Hollywood Boulevard which looks like it has to have really been shot very early in the morning (Aldrich’s own THE DIRTY DOZEN is seen on a marquee—researching some dates shows it probably was actually playing at the time) and an unexpected ending that I’ll get to shortly. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE is strange, no doubt about it, but considering it could be looked at as an attempt by Robert Aldrich to recapture the success of his previous dark-side-of-Hollywood’s-past WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? the resulting film is pretty much totally insane yet still never comes off quite as hysterical as you might be expecting. Too much of the background of this story is never really clarified, too many tantalizing elements aren’t really explored—have Zarkan and Rossella really been living together in this huge mansion for twenty years doing nothing but sniping at each other? Why? What could have happened during that time almost sounds like a more interesting movie than the one we got.
In his review when it was released Roger Ebert refers to it as “an awful movie, but fairly enjoyable,” as if the very concept of so-bad-it’s-good was still pretty new at the time. But in terms of camp, satire, whatever, way too often it feels unclear just what the movie is trying to say or do and on a very basic level it feels like if Robert Aldrich had a concept that was clear to him, he was never able to impart that to anyone else involved with the film. Whether looked at as shrill camp, satire or thriller WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is certainly over the top but it irrefutably works with an ending that comes crashing down like the end of the world, a veritable showbiz apocalypse. LYLAH CLARE has the logic of watching something half-drunk on the late show in the middle of the night with every other scene cut out but even saying that might be overstating the case.
Tying the basic concept into VERTIGO certainly sounds like an interesting concept for Kim Novak as a comment on the early part of her career at Columbia Pictures but it ultimately just comes off as odd, as if the movie itself isn’t clear on what to do with the reference point. In 1996 Novak told the Washington Post, “That was a weird movie. It didn’t have to be that bad,” adding that she didn’t know until the night of the premiere that Aldrich had dubbed in someone else’s voice for the scenes where the German-accented “Lylah” supposedly takes over. It’s not even clear what is going on at these points. Elsa Brinkmann is a woman with no past, no character, nothing beyond an undefined fascination with Lylah, so who is she? Is she a brilliant actress? Is she actually possessed by the legend? Is she some kind of acting savant? Since these scenes just come off as simply weird and nothing else it kind of winds up killing the movie right there. It’s not that these are points that necessarily needed to be answered but it feels like even the movie doesn’t know quite how to play it all so we’re not sure how funny or serious to take it. It’s interesting just to watch Novak in this context but she never gets any sort of character to play on a coherent level.
With a screenplay by Hugo Butler and Jean Rouverol from a teleplay by Edward DeBlasio and Robert Thom, too much of the movie focuses on the wrong things with not enough happening at times. I suppose this is one way to say that it’s fairly dull stuff. You want laughs? Watch THE OSCAR, seriously. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE’s odd tone is certainly hypnotic at times with an appropriately haunting score by De Vol but too often it’s not all that compelling. Sitting here right now I’ve just rewatched the first hour and I can barely tell you what happens during most of it. I suppose it consists of scene after scene of characters arguing over whether Finch is going to make this film, whether Borgnine’s studio is going to release this film, who is going to produce this film and so on. There’s a seemingly endless scene of Finch and Borgnine in the Brown Derby arguing over financing and how much they hate each other but not enough attention paid to what’s going on with Novak’s character. She’s certainly not some sort of Joe Gillis-type audience surrogate dragged into this world and irrevocably changed by it—at least, if she’s supposed to be it doesn’t read as such and since the production of what is apparently called LYLAH CLARE: FILM STAR (what a dull title) where you would imagine this transformation would take place, doesn’t even start until close to ninety minutes into this 130 minute movie so everything is just lopsided.
Even the tone feels off—there’s a slight dream feel to everything which makes sense but something about the photography makes it look cheap—maybe shooting the whole thing in black and white a la BABY JANE wasn’t an option by the late sixties (though the flashbacks are presented this way) but the dullness of the colors give it a flat look that makes everything kind of sleepy. The set of Zarkan’s mansion looks about as phony as the movie version of it we later see on a soundstage. Which may be the point, but since there’s no feel that the movie is toying with reality versus fantasy it’s just kind of confusing. It’s tough to know what to make of how the story resolves itself—part of the point seems to be its inevitability but it’s not clear if the movie is treating this as deadly serious, as satire, or something else entirely so when Finch muses how he’s just reliving the same mistakes he’s already made it doesn’t have much effect. The film certainly doesn’t need to outright state what it is but if it seemed to know then we’d be able to take it however we want (just like BABY JANE). That clarity isn’t there, though there are enough haunting grace notes that cause the whole thing to stay with me, like a high shot near the end of a nearly empty Grauman’s Chinese, that make it all continually fascinating even if very little of it actually works. I can’t help but imagine Blake Edwards being fascinated by it as well and figuring out what to do with the potential of the humor in the material in order to write S.O.B. You could call it Aldrich’s angriest statement about the industry, you could call it a camp classic, but it never reaches the boil it feels like it needs to and just winds up as a head scratcher. Enough of a head scratcher for me to watch it multiple times as I try to figure the damn this out, but still.
The other memorable element of the film, which everyone who’s seen it always seems to mention, is the very end which features a certain dog food commercial unlike any ever seen before (it’s also kind of an extension of a similar joke in BABY JANE) and, placed in this context, drives home Aldrich’s total contempt for everything related to what’s happened—there’s no point in trying to describe it and you really need to see it for yourself anyway. It feels like an ultimate statement about Aldrich’s feelings regarding Hollywood but, as Woody Harrelson in NATURAL BORN KILLERS once observed, “I’m not exactly a hundred percent sure what it’s saying. ” But I’m willing to make a few guesses. If anything, it succeeds in wrenches us away from this film before we’re expecting it, refusing to give us any sort of satisfaction just as Hollywood often does, churning out junk, tossing aside its finest talent as everyone within consumes themselves and everyone around them. The abrupt ending KISS ME DEADLY once had before it was correctly restored is nothing in comparison to this.
Coming near the end of her run as an above-the-title star, Kim Novak is still extremely beautiful but obviously somewhat older—older than this character should be, anyway—as well as being visibly more full-bodied. Her very presence certainly adds to things but as the muddled nature of the tale goes on it becomes very clear that though she’s doing her best the actress is as lost as everyone else and the dubbing issues certainly don’t help matters (Aldrich several years later: “I really didn’t do her justice.”). But I’m not sure what any actress is supposed to do with scenes where she walks around in a bra and a sweater tied around her neck as she does at one point—maybe this is where SEINFELD got that idea. Much of the cast seems stranded but they at least seem to be trying as well. Finch acts gravely serious but doesn’t always seem to be in the same frame as people which, considering he’s supposed to be an egomaniac could be part of the point. Ernest Borgnine, sneering “I make movies, not films!” is enjoyable as always as the studio head (he’s even watchable in THE OSCAR as far as I’m concerned), Coral Browne brings more depth to her shrewish Hedda Hopper-like columnist than might have been on the page and 8 ½’s Rosella Falk as Lylah’s long-ago lesbian lover has a fascinating presence and is maybe one of the key elements that makes the movie as bizarrely compelling as it ever is. Valentina Cortese has a few showy moments as the wardrobe mistress and Michael Murphy, as the son of the studio head, doesn’t seem to have much reason to be in the movie making me wonder if there was something between him and Novak that got cut. Aldrich veteran George Kennedy can be spotted in an unbilled cameo as an actor in one of Lylah’s old films and Dick Miller turns up in one scene as a reporter.
Going back to that dog food commercial, since I mentioned Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell site it reminds me that several years ago in a piece that I wrote on THE HOWLING here I wondered if an appearance of a dog food commercial at the very end was in fact a LYLAH CLARE reference which several days later was confirmed here by none other than Joe Dante, saying that I was the first person to ever pick up on that. I’m not sure what that says. Maybe it’s a reminder of how close I’m looking into these films sometimes. Maybe it doesn’t say anything other than that I was once lucky enough to see THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE which is rarely screened and until the Warner Archive made it available on DVD I don’t think it was ever released on video in any format. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference. Beginning to write this blog was probably one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I’ve met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and after 400 posts I find myself loving films, and loving looking at films, even more than I already did. Even if it’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE.