'The Life of Reilly' Review

From 2007, Christopher Campbell reviews Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson's record of Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man show.

The Life of Reilly
Civilian Pictures/L'Orange Films

A version of this review of The Life of Reilly was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on November 17, 2007.

I love this movie.

I don’t say those four words often, so I had to put them first. And isolate them. While watching The Life of Reilly, I laughed my hardest since Superbad. I also got seriously choked up for the second time at the movies this year (the first was during Control). In all honesty, I doubt I will see another movie as funny and touching as this one for quite a while.

But to be fair, what I really love isn’t the movie — it’s the one-man stage show that existed before the movie. The Life of Reilly isn’t even an adaptation; it’s simply a taping (or digital capture) of the final performance of the show, which was titled Save it for the Stage: The Life of Reilly and starred the late Charles Nelson Reilly.

To be fair again, the movie isn’t merely a stationary shot of a stage performance. There are intimate close-ups at all the right moments so that we don’t just feel like we’re watching a show; it’s more like we’re personally getting to know Reilly as he narrates the significant moments of his life.

I guess I should mention who this Charles Nelson Reilly guy is, for those who aren’t familiar. And for those who are familiar, too. Because this isn’t exactly the Charles Nelson Reilly we all grew up with. He’s older, less flamboyant, less a character. Yet still a highly enjoyable personality just the same.

Charles Nelson Reilly the character was a publicly exaggerated version of himself. He was one of those flashy gay personas of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s television (not that I realized he was gay — I just saw him as an eclectic person with a spitty lisp). If you didn’t experience him as a contemporary, it’s a shame, because looking back, guys like Charles Nelson Reilly really aren’t the same now that such acts are more accepted.

He is mostly remembered for his campy appearances on game shows, such as Hollywood Squares and Match Game, where he was the king of edgy innuendos. But he was also an accomplished Broadway actor (with a Tony Award), a regular on the popular television series The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, and he appeared in or voiced animated characters for a number of movies (I knew him first and best as Don Don Canneloni in Cannonball Run II).

Charles Nelson Reilly the man was still quite loud and still very funny. Yet like many clowns out of costume, he apparently carried a lot of sadness within him. This is the person we see in The Life of Reilly. No longer wearing a toupee (“Thank god that period is over!”) and, as far as I could tell, no longer salivating so heavily, Reilly delivers an autobiographical monologue that serves now as a postmortem revelation as much as a perfect swansong (he died last May).

Occasionally throughout the show, Reilly brings up something tragic, or otherwise more serious than the audience expects from the funnyman Charles Nelson Reilly they know, and there’s a gasp or similar response from the crowd. “Well, it’s that kind of play,” Reilly says, interrupting his story. “Not everything is a game show.”

Spanning his life, the monologue deals with a lot of sad moments. His father, a former poster artist for Paramount Pictures, lost his job and became an alcoholic, and then he was institutionalized. His aunt had a lobotomy. His mother was overbearing and racist. His whole family he describes as “so dysfunctional, Eugene O’Neill couldn’t touch them.” Other downers include a detailed account of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire and his experiences with studio execs that told him they don’t let gays on TV.

Not all is heartbreaking, though. One of the funniest recurring bits is that for each person from his life Reilly mentions, he provides the name of an actor whom we should imagine in the role. For example, when introducing his mother into the story, he gives us Shirley Booth to use as a reference. For his non-English-speaking Swedish grandparents, he says they are “to be played by” Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow. When he gets to the famous people, though, such as his first real acting teacher, Uta Hagen, he casts them as themselves.

He continues to have a lot of fun with the famous people, whether he knows them or not. For instance, one of his best jokes involves a cheap shot at Meryl Streep, who doesn’t figure in the story of his life, nor does it seem that he’s ever met her. Other jabs are aimed at his fellow students in Hagen’s beginners’ drama class: Steve McQueen, Hal Holbrook, Jack Lemmon, Geraldine Page, Jason Robards, Frank Langella and the (eventually?) wed Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller (yes, he makes a joke about them meeting there, but going by the chronology, they should have already been married when they enrolled — not that it matters), among many other legends. He claims they all had in common that they were poor and couldn’t act for sh*t. “I know! I was there!” he shouts to the audience, maintaining the play’s status as a memoir more than a comedy routine.

By the end of the show, Reilly has made a point about his life: that it was made up of the people in it. Certainly, this is the case with most autobiographical one-man shows, since the one man takes on the task of performing each character — despite our imagination filling in the suggested casting decisions — as if they are all a part of him or her, somewhere inside.

The Life of Reilly was directed by American Movie editor Barry Poltermann and animator Frank Anderson, and they sprinkle the film with additional footage, such as newsreel clips of the circus fire and film clips of referenced actors. There’s also some unnecessary man-on-the-street stuff in which people are asked if they know of Reilly. But mostly the filmmakers let Reilly’s performance stand alone because he’s such a great storyteller we could almost do without the extra visuals. Plus, Reilly is one of the greatest scenery chewers of all time, so it makes sense to keep the camera on him.

In the end, though, is simply capturing a stage performance necessarily cinema? And more specifically does it even count as a documentary? Sure, it’s nonfiction material, but in a way, it also isn’t. Of course, stand-up comedy and concert films, as well as other monologue films featuring Spalding Gray or Al Gore, are considered and even win Oscars. However, as much as I would love to shower The Life of Reilly with awards, it remains in my head that it is Charles Nelson Reilly who deserves the recognition far more than the filmmakers.

I’m sure Reilly is just happy to have been able to preserve this performance as his legacy and his epitaph. And all the recognition he requires now is to have you see it, and laugh your ass off. Because as he states in the film, he just wanted to find out how to make people laugh.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.