Remember Charles Nelson Reilly? Dim memories from my youth conjure up his flamboyant style, large glasses, pressured speech, ribald laughter, and double entendres as a game show fixture in the '70's. But, I had no idea he directed several Broadway plays, was a two-time Tony winner, a multiple Emmy nominee, film actor, and respected acting teacher. He appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson 106 times! Charles Nelson Reilly died last May, but thankfully directors Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson captured Reilly's one-man stage performance on film. The acclaimed performance "Save It For the Stage: The Life of Reilly" had a four year run nationally; after it ended Poltermann and Anderson asked Reilly to perform it to make the film.
The film embellishes the stage performance with a handful of man-on-the-street interviews - illustrating that most people don't really know who Reilly is. They use Reilly's home movies, and other visuals that illustrate points. When Reilly first walks out on stage he looks pale and fragile, but from the moment he starts talking he comes across as a powerhouse; we forget about his advanced age and illness, and just listen to his yarns.
The extra props and visuals weren't needed. The genius of the filmmakers is that they captured the master storyteller for perpetuity. With wicked dark humor, set-ups and payoffs, tension and incisive humor, we are treated to Reilly's story of a lonely childhood filled with tragic figures, overcoming odds and tenaciously pursuing his goal to entertain, his life a study of resilience.
An astute observer of human nature, Nelson hilariously tells of his coarse, bigoted bat toting mother, his artist alcoholic father, his erstwhile beautiful, lobotomized aunt, and his uncle who attended strangers' funerals every night. As an adolescent Reilly felt like he was living in an Ingmar Bergman movie. As a young man an NBC TV executive told Reilly that homosexuals couldn’t be on TV. Reilly showed him, in spades.
In the end of this tender legacy letter to us all, Reilly excuses everyone their foibles and poignantly focuses on his gratitude for the contributions of all of the people in his life, and especially the gift of humor. In "The Life of Reilly," Reilly's magnanimous spirit is infectious. Now I wish I had the chance to thank him for telling his story.
For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield.
© 2007 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 11/14/07
The Life of Reilly
Charles Nelson Reilly