I’m still not sure what I was supposed to take away from this movie. Was it the necessity to have hand railings attached to large staircases? Or maybe it was that having a starlet who is portraying another starlet who had a fear of heights, shouldn’t be allowed to do her own circus trapeze stunts. Most likely though it was that audiences who decided half a century ago that the movie was a flop, did so for a number of very good reasons. Reasons like the silly emphasis on staircase and trapeze accidents.
But to single out the stairs and trapeze at the center of the minimal action in the film does a disservice to stairs and trapezes everywhere. The Legend of Lylah Clare is a thudding dud whose melodramatic navel gazing at the ugly people who inhabit the film industry fails to even rise to the level of enjoyable camp due to a lack of likable characters, a lack of anything remotely interesting happening, and only intermittent outbreaks of moments that provide anything approaching unintentional chuckles.
Lylah Clare was a movie star who mysteriously died on her wedding night. Twenty years later, her agent returns to her widower/director’s home and announces that he has found the next Lylah Clare and that he wants to produce a movie with his new discovery (Elsa) playing Lylah in a movie about her life which the husband, Lewis Zarkan, will direct. Zarkan is reluctant to believe that anyone could be as great as Lylah, but eventually agrees to meet the aspiring actress.
Zarkan is won over by Elsa’s physical resemblance to Lylah (Kim Novak plays both parts) and her ability to mimic the ridiculously husky, heavily accented voice Lylah possessed. (The episodes of Elsa suddenly launching into the “voice” at various times are the most entertaining parts of the film, as she doesn’t just do it when her acting job requires, but whenever she wants to yell and scream and come across as tough. The shouting match with the crippled gossip queen in the middle of the movie and the end of the movie where she seemingly completely transforms into Lylah in particular stand out as embarrassingly entertaining.)
Zarkan hooks up with a crass, sharp tongued studio executive played by Ernest Borgnine (the only time the movie doesn’t threaten to make you feel like you popped about 50 sleeping pills and washed it down with 5 vodka chasers is when he’s on screen hollering at someone) to make the Lylah Clare movie. The remainder of the film is devoted to the efforts to shoot that picture and the messed up relationship between Elsa and Zarkan, who is in danger of doing to Elsa exactly what he did to Lylah twenty years before.
I felt more pain sitting through this collection of jerks, boors and outright assholes then old Elsa probably did after her unfortunate trapeze mishap. How could any sane person spend more than five minutes around Zarkan listening to his insults and not punch him in the face and walk out on him forever? He constantly belittled everyone he ran into, from his female housemate friend (who somehow tried to come onto both Zarkan and Elsa), to Elsa’s terminally ill agent, to Borgnine’s studio head who was going to fund Zarkan’s movie, to Elsa herself. Why would any of these people associate with him? After all, he hadn’t made a film in 20 years, so it wasn’t because he was making them money. And there’s no way the audience cares about whether he can avoid repeating the tragic past.
But if we hate Zarkan, maybe it’s because we are supposed to and it’s Elsa who we are really rooting for, right? Elsa seemingly thinks long and hard about whether to embark on the quest to play Lylah. We know this because she takes a boring walk around Hollywood and literally stands in the footprints of Lylah at what was then Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The problem though is that Elsa doesn’t really even exist as a character so much as a body that gets turned into a Lylah lookalike. We know nothing about her and there is no discernible reason as to why she slowly morphs into Lylah beyond getting her hair dyed and affecting Lylah’s speech.
Why does she suddenly love Zarkan who has been the world’s biggest prick to her? And why when Zarkan spurns her is her reaction to completely embrace the Lylah personality and agree to the ridiculous trapeze scene? We know it isn’t to win Zarkan back because of her activities with the gardener. Since Elsa was always a cipher, there is no satisfying explanation for any of her actions which might give some heft to the proceedings.
Likewise, the other two major players come off so poorly (Zarkan’s bisexual gal pal is vaguely creepy and last seen in the film playing with a gun. The agent doesn’t have the backbone to stand up for Elsa and to try and save her from Zarkan’s mind games because he so desperately wants to be something other than an agent before he dies.) you wish a 10.0 earthquake would hit Zarkan’s mansion in the middle of one of the foursome’s tedious arguments.
That absolutely none of this works (even on a trashy level) is surprising given the talent involved. Peter Finch (Zarkan) won an Oscar for Network. Kim Novak played another dual role in Vertigo to much better effect and director Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and The Great Escape were very different films that easily merit repeat viewings. And you can’t blame the actors for decisions like the hilariously awful way the flashbacks of Lylah’s death were handled or that the whole boring mess takes over two hours to unfold. And while we appreciate Novak’s willingness to saunter about in a bra frequently, nothing, not even sexy babes in lingerie can overcome a movie that ends with a dog food commercial.
The legend of how bad The Legend of Lylah Clare is remains undiminished by time. But don’t believe me, believe a movie that has the title character spouting nonsense double entendres like “just tell’em Lylah’s coming, soon as she gets her harness on.”
© 2013 MonsterHunter