Movie Review: The Life of Reilly

By Amy Lamare, August 19, 2006

“The only help for mankind is laughter.” – Mark Twain

“When I die, it’s going to read, ‘Game Show Fixture Passes Away’. Nothing about the theater, or Tony Awards, or Emmys. But it doesn’t bother me” – Charles Nelson Reilly

Once in awhile you see a film and the subject makes you think “What were the filmmakers thinking?!” Which is precisely what I thought when I saw Civilian Pictures had made a movie about the life of 70s game show icon Charles Nelson Reilly. Admittedly I am too young to remember much of him. I remember his name. I remember his ridiculous Liberace-like wardrobe from game shows in the 70s. I remember how people would write into Parade magazine in the Sunday paper and ask if he was still alive. And thank God he is, or we would not have this wonderful film to take us on the journey through his life. But it is still one of the most intriguing and bizarre subjects for a film I’ve come across in years.

The Life of Reilly (REILY) was CNR’s one man show. And it is precisely what it claims to be. Reilly takes the stage and begins to tell the story of his life. We hear about his Swedish mother who rarely went anywhere without her weapon — a baseball bat. We hear about his father, his alcoholism and how he left his mother for “Miss Marion.” We hear about how his mother refused to divorce his father, but he married Miss Marion anyway, rendering him a bigamist and Nelson Reilly the homosexual son of an angry Swede and an alcoholic bigamist.

Now if that is not a background rife with comedic material, what is?

Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Reilly grew up a sickly, terribly near sighted child who even as a kid could not hide the mannerisms stereotypically associated with homosexuality, thus earning him the unenviable nickname of “Mary.” His family and neighborhood were filled with rich characters that he reveals to us by assigning them movie stars, as in “my upstairs Italian neighbor who hung out the window and yelled at us while we were playing stickball would be played by Sylvester Stallone.” This gives his audience a real reference point to relate to, it draws the audience right into the story as if we are living it right alongside Reilly.

His first role was as Christopher Columbus in the school play when he was nine. His teacher told his mother that Reilly was the only true actor she’d ever known. When he was out of school, he enrolled in acting classes where his classmates included Uta Hagen, Steve McQueen, Hal Holbrook, Charles Grodin, Gene Hackman (GHACK), Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon, and Geraldine Page. Reilly reports that all the students knew back then that Hagen held the key. Hagen went on to open one of the most famous acting schools ever. Of McQueen he said, “even back then I was old, but McQueen, McQueen was never old.”

Reilly worked on and off Broadway, earning Tony Awards for How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Hello Dolly!. In his earliest interview for a job in television, he met with the then-head of NBC who told him he’d never be on because “they don’t let queers on television.” Well Reilly really had the last laugh there as one night he realized that he was going to be appearing on game shows 27 times that week.

One of the many funny moments comes when Reilly discusses how he always wanted to open the Sunday paper’s magazine and find out someone had written in to ask a question about him. Then, one day in 1977, it happened. But the question was “Is Charles Nelson Reilly dead?’ And how fitting that is, as even when I started to write this article, I was sure he was. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy he is not, it just strikes me as hilarious because over the years, apparently a lot of people wrote into a lot of newspapers to inquire about his reported death. His good friend Burt Reynolds (BREYN) took it all in stride — he had the articles blown up and framed for Reilly each and every time it happened.

If we were to compare The Life of Reilly to anything, it would be Robert Evans’s 2002 documentary, The Kid Stays In the Picture. Both films are full of Hollywood history and tell of lives richly lived. But Evans was all arrogance, cheese and bravado. Reilly’s film is far less self indulgent. You sense that Reilly truly appreciates all life has given him – the good and the bad. It is poignant, sweet, funny, and kind and will expose Reilly to a whole new generation. We can admire him for his self-deprecating humor and observations on his life and times, and not so much the Liberace-like wardrobe he sported on all those 1970s game shows.

The production values for The Life of Reilly are strong. Lighting works the shadows and angles well. The camera work is clumsy, but accurately and appropriately and purposefully clumsy. It contributes to the clumsiness and realness of his life because life is not eloquent for most of us. Life is real and life is clumsy and life rolls along with bumps in the road and tragedies to go with our triumphs. Reilly has lived a happy and heavy and fantastic life filled with great characters and experiences.

The Life of Reilly is an independent feature from Civilian Pictures. It will be doing the rounds of film festivals, it debuted earlier this year at SXSW. When it comes to a festival or theatre near you, do yourself a favor and catch this funny and poignant look at an authentic life.

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