THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE—see it and weep: the tears equal parts astonishment (over how bad it is) and gratitude (over how bad it is). Garish camp is best witnessed with some sloshed and/or stoned friends who share a similar sense of the absurd. Watched alone, by the time 90 of the 130 minutes have passed it has exhausted indulgence and starts to feel endless. Reliably uncompromising director Robert Aldrich followed arguably his best movie, certainly his biggest hit, The Dirty Dozen, with arguably his worst, this major dud. Reviews were scathing, and a layout of $3,490,000 yielded but $1,800,000 at the box office, 134th in 1968’s truly bizarre roster. *
“Do you really believe that you have a licence to ask any dirty question that slimes into that snake’s nest between your ears?”
Hollyweird. A talent agent convinces imperious, once-notable director ‘Lewis Zarkan’ (Peter Finch) to meet hopeful actress ‘Elsa Brinkmann’ (Kim Novak, 34) who bears uncanny resemblance to Zarkan’s deceased ex-wife, actress ‘Lylah Clare’. Lylah was as outrageous as Elsa is pliant, and under Zarkan’s dominance and assorted seduction-centered approaches from a coterie of industry
vampires associates, Elsa’s personality morphs into Lylah’s. No-one lives happily ever after.
Written by married couple and former blacklistee’s Hugo Butler (The Southerner, He Ran All The Way) and Jean Rouverol, the atrocious hammer-to-forehead screenplay was a bitter-basted retool of an hour-long 1963 ‘Dupont Show Of The Week’ teleplay with Tuesday Weld. The TV show coasted off the image of the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe: the ’68 feature travesty exhumes the auras of the earlier Garbo and Dietrich. It foists the basest take on “stars” and “starmakers” into Gothic melodrama: loud and laborious, the characterizations viciously cartoonish, bluntly directed, gracelessly edited, with acting as subtle as a train plowing into a parade.
Finch, recognizing the inherent parody, plays it broadly enough to emerge with a shred of dignity. Everyone else is stinko. Ernest Borgnine’s bellowing bully of studio boss (‘Barney Sheean’, basically Harry Cohn safely done Irish-Italian) batters your eardrums. Milton Selzer’s droopy agent ‘Bart Langner’ is an insult to schlemiels. The main supporting females are done as grotesques: Rosella Falk’s acting coach (named ‘Rosella’) bunting to third for the other team, Valentina Cortese’s costume designer ‘Countess Bozo Bedoni’ straight from MAD magazine, Coral Browne’s columnist ‘Molly Luther’ so much of a witch she might as well ride a broom.
Novak at 34 looks to kill (and is duly undraped enough to boost your meds) but not only is the naive Elsa character merely trace-papered by the script, can’t-win-Kim was sabotaged by Aldrich’s bonkers choice to dub her in a key scene with the voice of German actress Hildegard Neff. As Elsa “becomes” Lylah, the personality swap and vocal switch from Kansas picnic to ‘Panzers forward!’ is beyond ludicrous. **
“Pure silk. That’s all she’d ever wear, Bart said. Imagine that. Friends she had, straight from the gutter, but next to her skin – it had to be silk!”
With Michael Murphy, Gabriel Tinti, George Kennedy (uncredited for some reason), Jean Carroll, James Lanphier, Nick Dennis, Dave Willock, Dick Miller, Ellen Corby and Lee Meriwether.
* Somehow, in the repressive 50’s, Hollywood unlimbered several classic ‘beneath-the-glamour’ dramas that—even considering the restrictions of the day—packed timely punch and hold timeless power decades later: Sunset Boulevard, The Bad And The Beautiful, A Star Is Born. Yet in the “liberated” 60s, other than saltier language and bared bods, what was ralphed up was gaudy trash in the manner of Inside Daisy Clover, The Oscar, Valley Of The Dolls and The Legend Of Lylah Clare. Catnip for camp, crap for certitude.
** Kim on ‘Lylah’: “That was a weird movie. It didn’t have to be that bad.” She wasn’t aware that Aldrich had dubbed some of her dialogue in that key scene until she saw a screening “He didn’t tell me. I thought I’d die when I saw the movie. God, it was so humiliating.” After the flops Of Human Bondage, The Amorous Adventures Of Moll Flanders and Kiss Me, Stupid, this and the subsequent expensive dud The Great Bank Robbery pretty much killed Novak’s career as a top-billed star.
Initially Aldrich blamed the flop on his whipping-post star (snide critics always gave Novak grief) and the editing, but eventually copped up: “I was about to bum rap Kim Novak…and then I realized that would be pretty unfair. Because people forget that Novak can act. I really didn’t do her justice…You can blame it on a lot of things, but I’m the producer and I’m the director. I’m responsible for not communicating that to the audience. I just didn’t do it.” He said Novak was “the most underrated actress around. The reasons Lylah Clare failed was to do with me; she was badly served by her director.”
What Price Show Biz?—The Star, The Big Knife (directed by Aldrich), Career, Sweet Smell Of Success, The Great Man,, Play It As It Lays, Jeanne Eagles (with Novak), The Day Of The Locust, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Last Tycoon, Babylon, Hollywoodland, Mommie Dearest, Two Weeks In Another Town, Maps To The Stars, The Barefoot Contessa, The Player, All About Eve….