Beyond the lisping shtick

Posted on 15 Apr 2009 at 5:53pm
By Steve Warren Contributing Film Critic

Farewell doc unveils our beloved ‘Match Game’ raconteur, who had so much more to offer


"The Life of Reilly" is a recording of his last performance.

B+
THE LIFE OF REILLY
Directors: Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann
Cast: Charles Nelson Reilly
Screens April 22 at 8 p.m.
at the Four Day Weekend Theater,
312 Houston St. Fort Worth.
1 hr. 30 min.     Tickets $10

It was a strangely appropriate way to spend Memorial Day. Charles Nelson Reilly had died the weekend before and I’d had a copy of his film "The Life of Reilly" sitting around for months. The time had come to watch it.

"The Life of Reilly" is a record of the last of some 400 performances of Reilly’s autobiographical one-man show, "Save It for the Stage." It’s not just one man talking — it’s one man acting, and it makes us realize how underappreciated his acting talent was in his lifetime.

Directors Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann don’t just photograph a man on a stage but fashion a multimedia presentation complete with photos, film clips, even a bit of animation. Reilly jokes about the simplicity of the staging but music, sound effects, lighting and camera angles keep it watchable as a film, rather than a filmed stage event (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Paul Linke helped Reilly pare down his memoir from its original three-plus hours, largely by taking out most of what we already know. He was never closeted so there are only two brief references to his being gay, one when he was told in an NBC job interview in the early ’50s, "They don’t let queers on television"; and there’s only one – even briefer — reference to "The Match Game," perhaps the TV show for which he’s best remembered. There are two mentions of Emily Dickinson but none of his friend Julie Harris, whom he directed as Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst."

Much of the film is devoted to Reilly’s childhood in the Bronx, where he was born in 1931 to an artistic father and a mother who so offended the neighbors she had to carry a baseball bat whenever she went out. After she kept Reilly Sr. from going west for a job with Walt Disney he had a nervous breakdown and young Charles moved to Hartford with his mother to live with her parents.

He left for New York in 1950 and sat in on Uta Hagen’s all-future-star acting class on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. In one year, he appeared in 22 off-Broadway shows, then moved to Broadway and then to Hollywood. It doesn’t take a drama queen to make his life sound dramatic, but Reilly knows how to get the most out of every anecdote.

He makes a point of "casting" actors to represent key people in his life. His parents are "played" by Shirley Booth and Hume Cronyn, his grandparents by Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow ("I spent my childhood in an Ingmar Bergman movie!"), his aunt by Claire Trevor, etc. Sadly, no one else can play Charles Nelson Reilly. He begins the show by telling how, since 1977, people have thought he was dead. Since May 25, 2007, he has been. "The Life of Reilly" is a memorial to treasure.



A DECENT SECOND SHOT
Even if you’ve never braved any "High School Musical" fare, it’s a no-brainer figuring out Zac Efron’s appeal — especially after seeing "17 Again."

Efron plays Mike O’Donnell, a bright high school basketballer who throws it all away after finding out his girlfriend is preggers. After 20 years, Efron ages into Matthew Perry (an odd casting choice), a bitter 37-year-old who blames his wife (Leslie Mann) for ruining his future. With a cinematic nod to "It’s a Wonderful Life," Mike magically transforms into his 17-year-old hunky bod and begins a new spiritual path. The story isn’t much, but Efron carries this PG-13 fare like a champion. Margaret Cho makes a cameo as a sex ed teacher.

During a basketball-spinning showdown with Stan (Hunter Parrish), the school bully, Mike guesses that closeted sexuality or having small penis is probably the reason Stan intimidates weaker students. Fond of teenage abstinence, tight jeans and frosted tips, Mike also has to clear up that he’s not gay.

Oh, yeah — don’t expect to hear The Eurythmics’ song "17 Again."

— Daniel A. Kusner


Grade: B-
Opens Friday in wide release.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 17, 2009.

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