The Life of Reilly (Directors: Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson, USA, 2006): If you grew up in the 1970s like me, you couldn’t avoid Charles Nelson Reilly. He was on Match Game, Hollywood Squares, Lidsville, Uncle Croc’s Block, and made regular appearances on The Tonight Show. What I didn’t know about Reilly was that he had been a Tony Award-winning actor on Broadway in the 50s and 60s, and that when he disappeared from television, he went on to become a beloved and respected acting teacher.
This film documents a performance of Reilly’s long-running but also long-retired one-man show, “Save It For The Stage: The Life of Reilly.” The directors convinced him to take it out of mothballs for one last performance in 2004, and the result is this film. There is a bit of archival footage mixed in, and some music, but what the directors have done is essentially edit down a three hour long stage performance into something half that length. Which is why although it’s an amazing story, it’s just not that great a film.
Reilly has had a most interesting life, and he’s a great storyteller. That he even forged a career as an actor is incredible, considering his unbelievably dysfunctional family. His descriptions of his soul-crushing mother are hilarious, but also very sad. And when he eventually got an interview with the head of NBC in the early days of the television era, he was told, “They don’t let queers on television.” His prolific appearances in the 1970s almost seem to be his way of exacting revenge.
But because his story was so interesting, I wanted to know more. There’s very little about the fact that he is gay. No stories about crushes, romances, relationships, and only the NBC story about any kind of discrimination. One thing that emerged from the film was Reilly’s long and (to me) surprising friendship with Burt Reynolds. I would have loved to have heard a few more anecdotes like this about his friends. It just seemed like there was so much more to tell, and knowing that the stage show was longer, it made me question the directors’ decision to cut material. As well, apart from Reilly’s riveting performance, the filmmakers didn’t add much original work.
Although that makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the film, that would be untrue. I wanted to hear even more from this fascinating man. Unfortunately, the show is back in mothballs, and I don’t see him touring it again, not at 76 years of age. Pity.
May 28, 2007: I just found out the very sad news that Charles Nelson Reilly has passed away. I’m very glad this film was able to convey a sense of the wonderful drama of his life and his skills as an actor. Try to see it if you can.
October 23, 2007: Good news. The film will be opening across the US next month, and the film’s web site has been newly redesigned with lots of content. The film will be playing at the Bloor cinema in Toronto from November 30 until December 13, according to the site. Don’t miss it!