By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2007)
This week, we’ll examine a pair of films that offer two different perspectives on the business we call “show”- from the inside looking out, and from the outside looking in.
The Life of Reilly is a filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, of flamboyant demeanor and propensity for catty zingers, perhaps best known for his stalwart presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward (Younger readers may recognize him as a recurring character on the X Files and its spin off series Millennium.)
Reilly, who passed away in May of this year, once resignedly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”. It may surprise you (as it did me) to learn that Reilly was classically trained as a stage actor.
It certainly surprised attendees of one of Reilly’s master acting classes, when they were treated to a lengthy but enthusiastically received performance piece (improvised on the spot), in response to a simple question: “How did you become an actor?” The incident inspired Reilly’s autobiographical one man show Save it for the Stage. Reilly had officially ended the run before he was asked to perform it one final time (in 2004) for this film.
Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. Reilly had a tragicomic family background tailor-made for a stage show (an overbearing mother, institutionalized father and a live-in aunt with a lobotomy) and he milks it for all its worth. His mother’s favorite admonishment, “Save it for the stage!” becomes the teenage Reilly’s secret mantra as he begins to gravitate toward the boards.
After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s (you won’t believe your ears as Reilly rattles off the names from the actual roll call), he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”
Reilly gets the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide every week at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving, and inspiring, The Life of Reilly is a winner.
Which brings us to writer-director Tom DeCillo’s latest feature film, Delirious. (Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.) DiCillo returns to the same sharply observed, navel-gazing territory he explored in The Real Blonde and Living in Oblivion, namely, pointed meditations on the personal and artistic angst that performers (and all those who take succor from their celebrity) must suffer as they busily claw their way to fame and fortune.
DeCillo regular Steve Buscemi portrays the peevish Les Galantine, a paparazzi who fancies himself heir apparent to Richard Avedon. We are introduced to Les in a scene recalling Martin Scorsese’s introduction of the desperate and needy autograph hounds in The King of Comedy; a group of photographers hurl insults and elbows at each other as they jostle for position waiting for a glimpse of K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), a wispy pop diva. Les establishes himself as alpha parasite, shoving his way to the front of the swarm.
Also on hand is an aspiring actor turned homeless bum named Toby Grace, portrayed with wide-eyed, angelic, erm, grace by Michael Pitt. Toby literally stumbles into affording Les the money shot of the diva as she steals out a side door. Toby subsequently ingratiates himself into an overnight stay on Les’ couch, then proceeds to convince the initially suspicious photographer that he needs an assistant to help him get more of those page one tabloid photos (a job he will gladly fill in exchange for room and board).
To avoid spoilers, let’s just say serendipity eventually lands the homeless Toby into a plum role in a hot new TV series, and a star is born, complicating his friendship with an embittered and still-struggling Les, who feels Toby is “his” discovery (Pitt is essentially reprising his role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)
DiCillo isn’t exactly breaking new ground either, but he executes it with his blend of comic cynicism and touches of magical realism. Buscemi is at his “lovable weasel” best, and the strong supporting cast includes dependable indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan (Who?! If you saw him, you would say “Oh yeah-that guy.”) and Gina Gershon, who displays a flair for comedy as a cutthroat agent. Also look for Elvis Costello in a hilarious cameo. Not DeCillo’s best film, but fans of backstage tales like All About Eve will get some jollies out of it.