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Film / The Legend of Lylah Clare

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The Legend of Lylah Clare is a 1968 drama film directed by Robert Aldrich.

Lylah Clare (Kim Novak) was an iconic sex goddess of The Golden Age of Hollywood. From humble origins in Germany, she became a star under the tutelage of her mentor (and later, husband), director Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch). But circa 1948, she died in a horrific, scandalous incident. Zarkan was devastated, and never made another film.

Twenty years later, Zarkan's assistant Bart Langner (Milton Selzer) stumbles onto Elsa Brinkmann (also Kim Novak), a naïve young Hollywood hopeful from New Hampshire, who looks remarkably like Lylah. Eager to become a film producer, Bart concocts a plan: Lewis comes out of retirement to direct a Biopic about Lylah Clare, starring Elsa. Lewis is skeptical, until he meets Elsa and becomes convinced that she can re-create Lylah. Lewis talks film mogul Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine) into greenlighting the movie. In preparing for the role, Lewis, Bart and Rossella (Rossella Falk), Lylah's former "dialogue coach", are astonished to find that Elsa has started adopting Lylah's personality, at times seeming possessed by her. Lewis falls in love with her. But can she avoid the tragic ending that Lylah suffered?

This film contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Ten years after Vertigo, Kim Novak again plays a woman who's made over by an obsessive older man into a duplicate of his long-lost love. This time, though, it's Novak's character who has trouble with heights. Another Vertigo cast member shows up too: Ellen Corby (the hotel manager) as the Lylah Biopic's script supervisor.
  • Bathos: The ending. Elsa dies filming the climax of the Lylah film, they release it anyway with a huge amount of publicity, Rossella apparently plans to kill Zarkan, then the film wraps up with a commercial for dog food. Seriously.
  • Beautiful All Along: Elsa is quite mousy, but, c'mon! She's played by Kim Novak, so you know this is coming.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Will Elsa eventually hook up with Paolo, the hunky Italian gardener who appears briefly in the first half of the film? Do you even need to ask that question?
  • Creator In-Joke: Early in the film, Elsa walks past a theater advertising Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen on its marquee. Which leads to the question: does Ernest Borgnine exist in this universe, and do people notice that he looks and sounds a lot like Barney Sheean?
  • Dead Artists Are Better: Responsible for Lylah's mystique and will probably be the case with Elsa too.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: Once Elsa gets her Lylah makeover for the film, she turns into this for Zarkan.
  • Genre-Busting: The film is a weird mix of Soap Opera, Satire and Psychological Thriller.
  • Horrible Hollywood: It makes the point early and often—Hollywood is a soulless cesspool of greed, decadence and ego. There's not even really a conscientious, token artist character like you often see in these films (Michael Murphy as Sheean's son sort of fits that part, but he's never developed much as a character).
  • In the Style of: It's pretty unabashedly Sunset Boulevard meets Vertigo, as filtered through Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.
  • Insistent Terminology: Barney Sheean makes movies, not films.
  • Insufferable Genius: Zarkan's reputation in Hollywood is that of a demanding perfectionist who creates prestige films.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "Aren't you borrowing a little heavily from Sunset Boulevard?"
  • The Legend of X: A justified use of the trope, because Lylah is a major icon of Hollywood history in-universe.
  • Lingerie Scene: Elsa wears a bra as a top (along with a scarf) when Zarkan takes her out to see the garden, anticipating Seinfeld's Sue Ellen Mischke by a few decades.
  • Loony Fan: As recounted by Rossella, Lylah's death happened when a man snuck in her mansion behind her, confronted her on the grand staircase, threatened to rape her at knifepoint, then fell off the stairs as she fended off the attack, followed by Lylah losing her balance and falling too. Zarkan later reveals a couple details that were kept away from the press: the fan was actually a woman dressed as a man, and Zarkan killed the fan (but Lylah still lost her balance).
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Lylah Clare is a composite of Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe (blonde bombshells who came from humble origins and who died prematurely) and Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo (sex symbols from upper Europe with a career of prestige films).
    • Extending the Dietrich connection, Lewis Zarkan is obviously based on Josef von Sternberg.
    • Molly Luther is Hedda Hopper meets Louella Parsons.
    • Barney Sheean is based on Columbia Pictures honcho Harry Cohn, with whom Aldrich had some run-ins over the years. Cohn was also Kim Novak's discoverer and mentor (and exhibited some Svengali tendencies with her as well).
  • Prima Donna Director: Lewis Zarkan hasn't directed a movie in twenty years, but doesn't miss a beat when it comes to this.
  • Retraux Flashback: The flashbacks of Lylah are done Deliberately Monochrome, looking like a silent movie, surrounded by a red tint with a constant close-up of Elsa, in color, in the lower-left corner of the screen, reacting to the stories she's being told.
  • Same Language Dub: Lylah's husky German-accented voice was obviously dubbed in, though it's not clear if it's Novak or someone else doing the voice.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss:
    • When Zarkan and Bart get into an argument, Rossella basically tells the two to Get a Room!.
    • Lylah and Zarkan had a relationship like this, and again Elsa slips into that part of the role too.
  • Stage Name:
    • Elsa Brinkmann rather suddenly gets redubbed Elsa Campbell by Zarkan.
    • Louie Flack stole the name Zarkan from a magician.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Elsa in her love scene with Zarkan.
  • World of Ham: Finch, Borgnine and Falk go through yards and yards of scenery. Novak hams it up with the Lylah persona, but it makes sense since that's apparently how Lylah was In-Universe.
  • World of Snark: Scene after scene of characters barking stinging one-liners at each other, quickly turning into Narm.