IF YOU'VE been to Los Angles in the past few years, you may have noticed that the last Great American Dream Machine, Hollywood, has fallen into disuse and disrepair. Many of the big film lots have closed, studios are auctioning off their sets and costumes, the large vulgar marquees of the glamorous film palaces have been dismantled. And so it goes. But, like every other legend the West has given us, the peculiar and fascinating mythos of the movie capital will live on-in books, in songs, and, of course, in the movies themselves.
Particularly in those films which Hollywood has produced to help fortify its own mystique. Some of the most exuberant and entertaining movies of the past two decades-Stanley Donen's Singing in the Rain, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Robert Aldrich's Legend of Lylah Clare -have been about Hollywood and the strange brand of people who make it tick. The latter two of these pictures are being offered by the Currier House Film Society this week, and, if you love American movies and are in some way obsessed by the factory that made them, you simply cannot miss this double bill.
Indeed this may be one of your only chances to see Lylah Clare, even though this picture dates back only to 1968. Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) financed this film from the profits of his immensely successful Dirty Dozen, probably because no studio would put up the money; MGM finally distributed the movie-but Lylah died a quick critical and box-office death, thereby insuring its banishment to quadruple bill drive-ins during leap years. It's a shame, for this saga of Hollywood is one of the most personal and intriguing American films of the past three years.
ALDRICH'S project springs from a brilliant premise. Louis Zarkin (Peter Finch) is a has-been film director, remembered only for his hit movies made with one star, Lylah Clare. Zarkin's career died with the mysterious death of his leading lady, which occurred the night he married her. Now, a couple of decades later, he finds a Lylah-look-alike (Kim Novak) and decides to make a comeback by putting her in a film about the Lylah legend.
What follows is a bizarre and Gothic tale. Zarkin's new star becomes Lylah not only in appearance but in personality, thereby causing the director to make the same emotional errors in handling the new Lylah as he had with the original. Of course, these personal conflicts between Zarkin and his star-lover turn out to have more than a little to do with the original Lylah's strange death-and, unsurprisingly, history repeats itself.
But all this is merely an excuse (and an ingenious excuse) for Aldrich's larger concerns. For Lylah is not only a film about movies-it is a film about the making of a film about movies. The possibilities for fun within such a conception are endless-and I don't think Aldrich fails to exploit a single one of them.
The film is shot in gaudy studio sets, colored with vulgar purples and red-oranges. It is peopled with studio bosses, agents, wardrobe women, and sycophants. The action unfolds in Hollywood mansions, Sunset Strip restaurants, film studios and tacky hotels with flashing neon signs, concluding with a premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. To satisfy the Nathaniel West fans, Aldrich has also thrown in a perverse and crippled gossip columnist (Coral Browne), a lusty Mexican, and a heroin-addicted lesbian or two.
Yet the point of view Aldrich brings to his material is decidedly modern. He constantly reminds us that we are, after all, only watching a movie. Zarkin's intimidating mansion, for instance, loses a little bit of its eeriness when it reappears as a set on the sound stage of the film he is making. When a couple starts to make love Aldrich uses the old convention of letting the camera move slowly up to the ceiling-but the camera moves a little shakily so that we won't lose sight of the contrivance of the device.
There are also references to Cahiers de Cinema, various aspects of the nitty-gritty of the film industry, and other movies (among them Sunset Boulevard ). The picture climaxes with an idiosyncratic image that resolves everything in the picture and could come only from Aldrich; it involves a somewhat disconcerting dog-food TV commercial. Aldrich also never loses sight of the fact that the legend he is simultaneously destroying and recreating in this work may not be long for this world. It is not surprising, then, that death is a central motif of Lylah Clare. Every character is self-destructive in the extreme; in some cases, this is also combined with terminal cancer or a fondness for playing recklessly with guns and cars.
The Hollywood legend that drove Aldrich to finance this rather special film out of his own pocket-and which also served as a basis for its companion piece, Wilder's classic about a has-been movie star (Gloria Swanson) and her old director (Erich von Stroheim)-may indeed be made of tinsel. But, like the Mafia and major-league baseball, the movie industry undeniably has its own special fascination. Don't pass up Lylah Clare and Sunset Boulevard just because they give largely irrelevant views of the human condition; rather, see them because they come very close to making kitsch look like art.