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"Overnight, she became a star...Over many nights, she became a legend."
Tagline for The Legend of Lylah Clare
Kim Novak returned to the screen after a three-year absence with the 1968 gothic drama, The Legend of Lylah Clare, making up for lost time by taking on two roles, a long-dead Hollywood sex symbol and the novice actress hired to play her. Although she was still beautiful at 35 and more than believable as an exotic sex symbol, Novak didn't get the comeback she deserved. The film was a major box-office flop that brought her mostly negative reviews. Over time, however, the growth of a cult surrounding director Robert Aldrich, coupled with the picture's over-the-top dramatics and the difficulty of seeing it programmed at theatres or on television, made the film legendary, viewed by some as guilty pleasure and by others as a lost treasure.
The Legend of Lylah Clare originally was a television play presented on The Dupont Show of the Week, with Tuesday Weld cast as the young actress and stage star Alfred Drake as the director trying to turn her into a dead ringer for his late wife. Having scored with Hollywood exposs in the past, particularly The Big Knife (1955) and the 1962 gothic horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Aldrich thought the story a likely vehicle for both an attack on Hollywood filmmaking and an exploration of the conflict between illusion and reality he had exploited in many of his other films. It also provided a change of pace from his previous action-packed film, The Dirty Dozen (1967), and it allowed him to finish off his MGM contract.
Originally, the director wanted French star Jeanne Moreau for the double-role of Lylah Clare and young actress Elsa Brinkmann. When she proved unavailable, the parallels between The Legend of Lylah Clare and Novak's classic Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo (1958) made her a likely choice. The star had played a double role in the previous film and, as in Lylah Clare, both characters had died in falls. Both characters in the current film also suffered from a fear of heights, allowing natural references to Vertigo in the screenplay. Yet even though she was his second choice, Aldrich enthused about Novak's casting to the press: "What...made Kim a star is the American male dram that there be innocence and beauty in the eyes, one millimeter below the surface, an extraordinary sensuality. She has that rare mixture: ice and fire." (from Edwin T. Miller and Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich)
Despite the press' excitement about her return to the screen, Novak remained typically aloof from the whole concept of stardom. Some have suggested she only did The Legend of Lylah Clare to finish off a contract with MGM. During one interview, she even stated, "I'm not really wild about working anyway, never have been. Oh, I know some performers worry if they are not working all the time, and they'll take anything that comes along. I can't do that. It would be like being a prostitute." (from James Robert Parrish and Don E. Stanke, The Glamour Girls).
During production she worked with acting coach Benno Schneider, a stage director who had played a small role in her The Notorious Landlady (1962). But Aldrich was distressed that even after rehearsals, she was unsure of her character's motivations and attitudes. By contrast, Finch threw himself into the role of the dictatorial director, building energy for the role by walking the five miles from his Beverly Hills home to the film's Culver City sets even when summer temperatures in Los Angeles topped 100 degrees. He praised the film as "black mahogany gothic horror right on the edge of being too much." (Finch quoted by Elaine Dundy in Finch, Bloody Finch: A Life of Peter Finch
Finch worked from a script by old friend Hugo Butler, who was just coming off a decade on the blacklist, and Butler's wife Jean Rouverol. Lukas Heller -- who had also written Baby Jane and The Dirty Dozen -- also contributed but refused credit, hoping the film would help reestablish Butler. What they developed with Aldrich was a heady mixture of styles and viewpoints excoriating Hollywood commercialism and depicting the disintegration of the young actress' personality as she becomes consumed by her role. The latter is most strongly highlighted when she and the director make love in a room filled with pictures of the dead Lylah. They also gave the film three flashbacks to the star's death, each presenting a different version of the event, and an outrageous finale counter-pointing the premiere of Lylah's film biography with a murder plot and a surrealistic dog-food commercial.
Like many films about Hollywood, The Legend of Lylah Clare has triggered intense speculation as to the real-life film figures on whom the characters are modeled. The German-born Lylah, a sex symbol of fluid sexuality, appears to be a combination of Greta Garbo, who like Lylah starred in a film version of Anna Christie, and Marlene Dietrich. Both actresses had arrived in Hollywood with director-mentors, the former with Mauritz Stiller, the latter with Josef von Sternberg. Von Sternberg, with his fanatical perfectionism and the rumors of his involvement with Dietrich, seems the more likely source for Peter Finch's Lewis Zarken. Others have suggested that his dictatorial manner echoes Erich von Stroheim. There was little debate about the source of Ernest Borgnine's performance as a crass studio executive. Aldrich, like many other filmmakers, had suffered some famous run-ins with Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn and had already used him as the model for the corrupt executive played by Rod Steiger in The Big Knife. Coral Browne's vicious gossip columnist was generally held to be a nightmare version of Hedda Hopper, while Rossella Falk's lesbian vocal coach may have been modeled on Marilyn Monroe's first acting coach, Natasha Lytesse, who was rumored to have been involved with the star romantically. One cast member actually could have been playing herself. Ellen Corby, soon to become famous as Richard Thomas' grandmother on The Waltons, played the script girl, a role she had played in real life for 12 years before turning to acting.
When MGM's executives got a look at The Legend of Lylah Clare, it proved to be a little too much for them. Confused about how to handle the mixture of gothic horror, insider Hollywood gossip and high-pitched melodrama, they decided to sell the film as camp at a time when the general public was less than receptive to that form of humor. Although more than a thousand fans turned up at Graumann's Chinese Theatre to welcome Novak back to the screen at the film's premiere, it never found an audience. Most of the reviews were savage, with Newsweek's critic suggesting "the film fights clichs with clichs." Life magazine's Richard Schickel, however, captured the appeal the film would have for many of its later fans: "Not merely awful; it is grandly, toweringly, amazingly so...I laughed myself silly at Lylah Clare, and if you're in just the right mood, you may too."
Producer-Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Hugo Butler, Jean Rouverol
Based on the teleplay by Robert Thom, Edward DeBlasio
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction: George W. Davis, William Glasgow
Music: Frank De Vol
Cast: Kim Novak (Lylah Clare/Elsa Brinkmann), Peter Finch (Lewis Zarken), Ernest Borgnine (Barney Sheean), Milton Selzer (Bart Langner), Rossella Falk (Rossella), Gabriele Tinti (Paolo), Valentina Cortese (Countess Bozo Bedoni), Michael Murphy (Mark Peter Sheean), Lee Meriwether (Young Girl), Coral Browne (Molly Luther), Ellen Corby (Script Girl), Sidney Skolsky (Himself), George Kennedy (Matt Burke in Anna Christie, 1930), Dick Miller (Reporter).
C-130m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Frank Miller