In the Hollywood melodramas of tough-guy auteur Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly), the world of show business is a nefarious, ulcer-inducing nest of vipers populated by parasites, the deluded, and the nakedly ambitious. And those are on good days. The Legend Of Lylah Clare, Aldrich’s cyanide-laced 1968 valentine to Hollywood, exists in the long, haunted shadow of faded stardom and abandoned dreams. Aldrich’s acidic drama also lives in the harsh, unflattering shadow of two films similar enough to invite unkind comparisons: Aldrich’s 1962 classic What Ever Happened To Baby Jane—another overheated melodrama about pathetic would-be players shadow-boxing a tragic past—and Vertigo, which similarly cast Kim Novak as an innocent young ingénue molded to fit the glamorous image of a mysterious dead woman. By the time it lurches to a close, the campy and overlong Lylah Clare can barely stand on its own merits, let alone compete with two of cinema’s definitive melodramas.
Novak stars as a beautiful young woman plucked from obscurity to play the titular role of a real-life sex goddess who died a mysterious death that cemented her image as one of the screen’s most enigmatic icons. Peter Finch costars as her mercurial lover and director—and also, not coincidentally, the mercurial lover, director, and star-maker of the long-dead movie star Novak’s ingénue is portraying. As filming goes on, Novak begins to take on the qualities of the actress she’s playing until it’s nearly impossible to tell where the actress ends and the character begins.
The Legend Of Lylah Clare gets off to a suitably nasty start. In a characteristically mean-spirited gag that doubles as foreshadowing, Novak notices only the names of stars who met unfortunate ends (like Fatty Arbuckle) while perusing the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The script embraces tart cynicism as a preeminent virtue, but the tone grows increasingly hysterical until it’s pitched somewhere between a cross-dressing revue and a silent movie. Novak’s hammy Teutonic accent as she grows increasingly possessed by the title character doesn’t help. The Legend Of Lylah Clare begins as the story of a doe-eyed innocent corrupted by the star-making machinery, but ends as the story of a beautiful young actress who devolves, over the course of 130 overheated minutes, into a drag queen.
Key features: A trailer.