Frank L. Anderson & Barry Poltermann
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 10 November 2006
Source 35mm print
The sound of a great name dies like an echo; the splendor of fame fades into nothing; but the grace of a fine spirit pervades the places through which it has passed, like the haunting loveliness of mignonette.
Charles Nelson Reilly isn’t dead, a fact the actor-director would like us to know. Since the mid-1970s, while he was still a panelist on Match Game, articles have appeared in newspapers across the country asking, “Is he still alive?” And while those who have followed Reilly’s career since his start in theatre may find the error profane, Reilly himself finds humor in the decades-long misconception: his friend, Burt Reynolds, has framed every one of those articles, and Reilly has lined his bathroom walls with them.
Filmed over a span of five days, The Life of Reilly is based on Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show Save it for the Stage (the title was an oft-repeated piece of advice from his mother); originally an extemporaneous talk that lasted three hours, directors Frank L. Anderson and Barry Poltermann have carved out an 87-minute cinematic memoir that, more than anything else, explores his younger days.
Reilly’s childhood is best described as a dark comedy. His mother was a shielding, officious presence whose prejudices made her the foe of their Bronx neighborhood. His father was a well-established artist for Paramount until the rise of photography and an ill-fated meeting with Walt Disney sent him tumbling into the bottle; he later suffered a nervous breakdown. His Aunt Lilly, a nurse, was voluntarily lobotomized. His uncle spent his evening at strangers’ funerals. His grandparents, both Swedish immigrants, lived in a small New England home; at dinner, they spoke their native language while tossing fish bones into the nearby toilet.
Accompanying Reilly through his adolescence are actors and actresses, many of them dead, cast in familial roles, including Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as his grandparents. Whether this is a subtle hint at a persistent childhood idealism – who hasn’t acted as casting director in their own life? – or simply Reilly’s ironic sense of humor, it accomplishes one thing: inadvertently or not, it demonstrates how Reilly felt about his family, how he wanted so desperately to live a normal, Rockwellian life while knowing that he worked, ate, and slept in an Ingmar Bergman film. (“Eugene O’Neill,” he says, “would never get near this family.”)
But Anderson and Poltermann’s documentary is far from an elegy for icons. Everything that made Reilly nationally recognizable – from his appearances on Match Game to the The X-Files and The Drew Carey Show – is never mentioned. Instead, this is his verbal testament to survival and success. He discusses his start on off-Broadway, how he understudied for greats on Broadway, and how the recognition he received propelled him to Hollywood. He relates to us the story of how a critic attacked him for appearing in too many plays (over 20 in one year), how the president of NBC barred him from television because they didn’t hire “queers,” how TV Guide subsidized his narcissism.
The film succeeds primarily because Anderson and Poltermann step aside and allow Reilly to bask in the spotlight alone, where he’s the most effective. The stage on which he speaks is bare save for a few pieces of furniture, a table of memorabilia, and chalk-like outlines denoting boundaries and set pieces. As a result, our attention is focused solely on Reilly, even as he intermingles frequently with the shadows. Intercut are short scenes from the past: Clips from game and talk shows, home movies, and a short piece of clay animation by Frank Anderson himself depicting an animated Reilly in the midst of a frantic holiday shopping spree. This is, through and through, Reilly’s film.
At the same time, half of Reilly’s speech is missing, edited out. During the Q&A at this year’s Milwaukee International Film Festival, directors Anderson and Poltermann explained that by removing Reilly’s signature chuckle – a mischievous, guttural laugh that defies description – they preserved Reilly’s persona – the laugh is still present in flashbacks – while distancing him from his consuming reputation. This isn’t 87 minutes of Reilly the gay icon, Reilly as Jose Chung, or Reilly the flamboyant game show figurehead—this is Reilly the undervalued actor and teacher, the loving son and friend, the poor boy from the Bronx.
While The Life of Reilly is charmingly wistful and unassuming, Reilly himself is exuberance incarnate, even at the age of 73. From his perfectly timed foul mouth and iconic expressions to recollections of being taught by Uta Hagen (“who will be played,” he says jokingly, “by Uta Hagen!”) alongside men like Jack Lemmon and Jason Robards, and an impersonation of Meryl Streep that rivals any, Reilly basks in every millisecond. But the film’s most telling scene is a remembrance acted out. Recalling an incident on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” – Reilly’s favorite venue – in which an arrogant actress rebuffed his knowledge of Shakespeare, Reilly takes center stage, asks for the lights to be dimmed, and recites a passage from Hamlet with breathtaking gusto, mastery, and ease. Casual viewers of TV-Land and the Game Show Network may be surprised by this sudden and unexpected soliloquy, but die-hard Reilly fans expect nothing less.