The Legend of Lylah Clare exposes all the fictional characters that any film about Hollywood thinks it must have – the vulgar, despotic and shrewd mogul (acceptably played by Ernest Borgnine as an easily-identifiable Hollywood studio head); the terror of the gossip columnists (wildly overdone by Coral Browne); the sick and worried producer (exceptionally well played by Milton Selzer); the mysterious manly woman (sympathetically done by Rossella Falk) and various other freaks and misfits of the Hollywood scene.
And, of course, the ruthless egocentric director and the nobody who becomes a star. Which is where Peter Finch and Kim Novak come into the picture.
Finch, being the kind of actor who could beat the odds no matter how high they’re stacked against him, is marvellous as Lewis Zarkan, a rich and talented director who retired to his private screening room to brood over the ugly death of Lylah Clare on their wedding night 20 years before.
Then into his empty life comes Kim Novak, who is the spitting image of Lylah Clare – mainly because she plays both starlet Elsa Brinkman and star Lylah Clare in agonisingly antiqued flashbacks. Ruthlessly, relentlessly, Zarkan grooms her to play in a movie about the dead Miss Clare.
That is his first mistake, because in no time at all, not only does his discovery behave like Lylah Clare, but he behaves as if she were Lylah Clare. And that’s okay because it allows director Robert Aldrich to get in the sex he thinks necessary for a movie about Hollywood, and it also sets into action the entirely incredible climax of the picture.
And this is where Aldrich makes his biggest mistake. He lets Kim Novak think she is Lylah Clare, and so the legend is rewritten. Novak is no Sarah Bernhardt, so has little difficulty carrying the light load of an actress who doesn’t know how to act. But when called on to split a personality, there just isn’t enough to go around.
Which means nobody else knows what she’s doing either. Viewers can pick their own version of Lylah’s death since at least three different scenes are shown in flashbacks to depict this. But who really cares?
Aldrich handled a dissection of Hollywood much more convincingly and with a great deal more genuine bloodletting with The Big Knife (1955). This time he has used a prop knife – the kind where the blade disappears into the handle, and nobody gets hurt.
Lylah Clare/Elsa Brinkman/Elsa Campbell
Lewis Zarkan/Louie Flack
Countess Bozo Bedoni
Mark Peter Sheean