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STUDIO: Reel Diva
RUNNING TIME: 84 mins
A former stage and TV veteran recounts his turbulent life via stage performance in the twilight of his life.
Charles Nelson Reilly
Frozone? That you?
Charles Nelson Reilly is probably either best known to folks on this site as Jose Chung in one of the best (and certainly funniest) X-Files episode ever, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, or as a consistent guest on The Match Game, in which he famously wore a captain’s hat and a pipe and was never shy about his flamboyant personality. The Life of Reilly is an edited down filmed version of his live stage show memoir (called Safe it for the Stage: The Life of Reilly) that premiered in 2000. Reilly died shortly after filming, before the film was released, in May of this year.
This was a nice surprise. I’m not really big into one-man stage shows, particularly the type where you’re the actor is going to attempt to show off and play a multitude of parts. Unless you possess the wit of late great Spalding Gray, one man shows often come across (to me) as pompous, arrogant and light on thought provoking content. Charles Nelson Reilly didn’t have Spalding Gray’s wit, but he certainly had a lot of heart and he gives a touching, funny, often heartbreaking final performance during his last stage show and despite my initial resistance, this film eventually won me over completely.
The sequel was totally Oscar bait.
I think every actor, particularly every character actor, should have a film like this in the twilight of their careers. These are the types of folks we don’t hear enough about. They’re not overexposed, they haven’t lived the celebrity lifestyle, and their lives are often interesting and they’re not shy about talking about it. After joking with the audience about how he’s quite actually alive (he gets recognized a lot by older folks in the grocery store who say "Hey—it’s you…what’s your name? I thought you were dead!"), Reilly launches right into his family history, which includes a baseball bat wielding racist mother, a failed artist for a father who blew a chance at working with nobody short of Walt Disney himself, a lobotomized aunt and an uncle who crashes funerals for fun (eat that, Will Ferrell). When the obviously gay Reilly speaks of overhearing two neighbors next door discussing how "odd" he was, Reilly exclaims to the audience, "Can you imagine being called odd with a family like that?! Eugene O’Neil wouldn’t get NEAR us!"
Reilly had quite the life, from his crazy family to his escape from a circus fire that claimed over 100 lives to his first acting class, which was taught by legend Uta Hagen and included classmates such as Steve McQueen, Jerry Stiller, Hal Halbrook, Jason Robards, Orson Bean, Anne Meara, and Gene Hackman and others…all of whom went on to become staple character actors on stage and screen. Reilly reads the list off and you can’t help but let your jaw drop. Can you imagine being in a class with that much talent? "We all had three things in common," Reilly tells the audience. "We wanted to get on stage, none of us had any money, and this entire list…couldn’t act for shit."
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Lars Von Trier’s epic conclusion to his American trilogy: Gaytown.
You can’t help but feel yourself get wrapped up in Reilly’s stories, which include retellings of watching McQueen and Bean playing the brothers from Death of a Salesman (horribly) week after week in acting class, or inviting a former family friend to see him in Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway after she proclaimed years ago that he was destined to be an actor. The man had a lot of heart and could tell a good story, and even if his over the top theatrics and flamboyant manner sometimes rub you the wrong way, they’re clearly genuine and part of his giant personality, so you go along with it. He paints himself as an underdog, striving to be an actor without the support from his domineering mother (who, despite her constant negative behavior, Reilly manages to gracefully thank. "She could be very funny," he says. "And she gave me my sense of humor"). When Reilly first tries out for a TV role on NBC, the president looks him straight in the eye and says, "They don’t let queers on television." Reilly eventually becomes so popular on TV (appearing in everything from to Car 54, Where Are You?The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and The Johnny Carson Show) that he discusses counting how many times he would appear in the TV guide and finally wonders out loud, "Who do you have to fuck in this town to get OFF television?"
While Reilly’s performance and writing (co-written by Paul Linke, otherwise known as Sheriff Bruce Smith from Motel Hell), the direction of this final stage performance leaves something to be desired. The performance is heavily edited, so occasionally there will be odd fadeout transitions that are far too distracting. Also, the filming is far too claustrophobic, often featuring close-ups on Reilly’s pockets, thumbs, feet and hands where we wish we could just see the man walk around on stage. When we do get a glimpse of Reilly on stage, it’s from too great a distance. We alternate from close-ups to master shots with nothing in between. Far too often the camerawork feels clumsy and unfocused, and where the shot begins on Reilly’s face it ends up covering nothing but a piece of empty stage. Some better editing could have cleared up this problem.
Merry Christmas, reader (and…hi, mom!).
Still, The Life of Reilly is a heart warming look at a career of an actor told from the inside out. Anyone seriously interested in a compelling tale of an underdog should think about checking it out.
Not much to speak of as far as extras go. Just a trailer, which oddly enough, includes more footage of Reilly on the Match Game than the entire film it’s advertising. Image and sound are fine for a filmed stage show.
Bottom Line: A solid rental if you’re interested.