The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) ***

Everyone loves a legend and here we are treated (twice) to the creation of one. Surprising echoes of Vertigo (1958) with none of that film’s virtuosity and proving that New Hollywood is much the same as Old Hollywood.

No wonder Kim Novak (The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, 1965)  came out of semi-retirement – three years off-screen following a brief marriage to Richard Johnson. It’s the role of a lifetime, an actor’s dream, the chance to delight Oscar voters. She plays two parts – the deceased Lylah Clare, a Jean Harlow type, and Elsa Brinkmann (name changed to Campbell), the ingenue hired to play her in a film about the star’s life.

Basically, history repeats itself. Director Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch) who turned Lylah into a star and married her, repeats the process with Elsa, seduction not leading to marriage, but the same jealousy plays out and the same tragic ending. Black-and-white flashbacks fill us in on Lylah, but most of the picture is Elsa’s transformation from mousy, bespectacled brunette  full-blown blonde movie star.

Initially, Zarken is not smitten, but when Elsa manages an uncanny emulation of Lylah’s voice and it transpires she has the exact same measurements, he changes his tune and embarks on his own comeback. Elsa takes to stardom pretty fast, humiliating gossip queen Molly Luther (Coral Brown), and, for no apparent reason, takes to striding around the garden topless except for bra.

As Zarken grows more attached to Elsa it’s soon apparent he believes the woman he’s directing is Lylah re-born. There’s some mystery about Lylah’s death but no mystery about how this new relationship will work out, other than that Zarken will be tormented by jealousy as before.

As you might expect, Zarken duels with studio boss Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine), and there’s some interesting insight into negotiation techniques. The scenes showing how a movie is made are among the best, especially how a director finds alternatives when sequences  don’t work. There’s temptation everywhere, drugs, alcohol and sexual experimentation if that’s your bag, a lesbian acting coach (Rossella Falk) coming on strong.  

Of course, Elsa soon suspects it’s the character she’s playing – as in Vertigo – that everyone is falling in love with not the person she is.

But while Elsa can impersonate the great actress’s features and voice she lacks her acting talent, making her even more vulnerable to her own insecurity. “You’re an illusion, without me you don’t exist,” barks Zarken after Elsa makes the mistake of assuming he has real feelings for her instead of just bedding her as he would any powerless woman. And the idea that she would forsake a promising career for motherhood infuriates him, though, of course she could be making that up as a means of holding him to ransom.

For the most part, Novak, very under-rated as an actress and seen too often as just glamorous, is excellent, but she is hindered by too speedy a transition, from shy young woman to someone giving full throttle to her emotions, and, at one point, required to throw her head back in a maniacal laugh. Peter Finch (The Red Tent, 1969) is spot-on, exuding control, but very capable of the spiteful exhibition of power.

The real problem is that there’s little mystery as to how this will unfold. Most of what we see in Hollywood is what we expect, and although it’s not as camp as Valley of the Dolls (1968) at times comes perilously close. It’s often very stagey. Director Robert Aldrich (Flight of the Phoenix) had previously taken a pop at Hollywood in the The Big Knife   (1955) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) but it’s such a difficult subject matter that virtually every avenue explored appears cliché.

Take it as camp and you’ll be satisfied, but don’t go looking for anything deeper.

No idea what’s going on with this “we’re sorry” business below.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) ***”

  1. Always wondered if movie was based on book Fedora by actor/writer Tom Tryon. In this story, old actress comes back brand new and better than ever…seemingly ageless. Except that the new Fedora was her daughter, which she had secretly… agree the scenes about movie making are grand. Great review from multiple angles!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crowned Head which spawned Biily Wilder’s Fedora came later. I liked Tryon as an actor more than many directors did. I’ve got a review of The Cardinal coming up for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. He got revenge on Hollywood by turning into a bestselling author and getting studios to pay him more for his writing than they did for his acting.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. As a Robert Aldrich fan I have been trying to see this film for a long time but your review has cooled my ardour a bit. I’m not sure what happened to Aldrich. He seems like the archetypal well-educated person who gets corrupted by Hollywood. His early films are his best in my opinion, though I have a soft spot for some of the later ones, especially Ulzana’s Raid and Hustle.

    Liked by 2 people

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