Knight at the Movies - Archives
Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man stage show makes for a terrific one-man movie, Cole and Noel would've LOVED Miss Pettigrew
“Did you think it would all be game shows?” Charles Nelson Reilly asks audience members early on in The Life of Reilly, the
movie of his one-man autobiographical show. Reilly, who died last year, was a lot more than the bitchy, obviously gay man holding
court on “The Match Game” or terrorizing Butch Patrick as Hoodoo the magician on “Lidsville.” In the 84 minute running time of the
film that quip is the only mention of game shows Reilly makes but his life, shaped by his dysfunctional upbringing (to say the least),
is mesmerizing nonetheless. It’s a very moving and funny film – a wonderful portrait of a theatrical artist who just happened to be
Reilly prowls the stage of a theatre in Los Angeles (which co-directors Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson filled with his own
furniture - trucked in that day from his house) relating his Believe It Or Not story. Born in the Bronx, Reilly was an only child cowed
by a racist, harpie of a mother and a timid, artistically talented father who turned to drink after a huge career setback. At four Reilly
was taken to the local movie palace and thought to himself, “This is the place for you” and as soon as he is able to escape what
amounts to a Dickensian childhood he heads for the bright lights of Broadway and eventually Hollywood.
But the heart of the film is how growing up with the overbearing mother shaped the cantankerous, forthright, and always hilarious
Reilly. In one vivid section Reilly draws a portrait of the family, now living in Hartford, Connecticut with extended family – an aunt,
uncle and grandparents – that is so vivid you can almost hear the bickering. A family so screwed up that not even tragic playwright
Eugene O’Neill would touch them, he notes – adding humor, as always, to the heartbreak.
Poltermann and Anderson have their hand-held cameramen doing their best to keep up with Reilly as he races about the stage,
moving from one amazing memory to the next. At one point success brings the rising Broadway character actor face to face with the
President of NBC, a network looking to pump up their television shows with theatre talent. This man takes one look at him and
says, “They don’t let queers on television” “It was a short meeting” Reilly quips but years later he reveals delightedly going through
each issue of TV Guide and counting how many times he would be on television that week. So many that he would think, “Who do I
have to fuck to get off TV!” Even the horrid mother is humanized as the piece nears its conclusion. Throughout, Reilly’s rage and
passion are tempered by the unending well of his hilarious insight – he’s just plain funny which saves him (doesn’t it save us all)
time and again.
The Life of Reilly is a big rambling, fabulous but messy movie (not unlike its subject); a wonderful eulogy to a man who was much
more than jokes on an afternoon game show. It plays exclusively in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque (1517 W. Fullerton) from
Friday, March 7-Thursday, March 13. Poltermann will be present for Q&As after the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee
Uncork the champagne you Noel Coward lovers, you passionate Cole Porter queens. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is here
and it’s a movie that combines the effortless sophistication and lyrical cleverness of those two witty gay icons with the yearning and
heart of Dorothy Parker and Paul Gallico’s “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” or even A Matter of Time, Liza Minnelli’s flop musical about a
chambermaid becoming a world renowned movie star. Set in London in the 30s just before the start of WWII, the endlessly
charming movie is located in that rarefied world in which a down and outer can rise within 24 hours to the top of society and
transform everyone around her with her good common sense in the process.
Frances McDormand plays the know it all crank, Miss Pettigrew, who at the outset is desperate for a job as a ladies maid after
another failure. Enter the ditzy, daffy, delicious Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), a stage starlet determined to see her name in lights
in London’s theatre district. If Delysia has her way (with that name how can she not?), young, rich Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), will
star her in his next revue, “Pile on the Pepper.” She’s just slept with him to seal the deal when Miss Pettigrew arrives on the scene.
But Delysia’s heart really belongs to the poor but talented and extremely cute Michael (Lee Pace) her accompanist though she’s also
at the moment being kept by Nick (Mark Strong), the rich owner of the nightclub where the two work. It’s actually Nick’s art deco
stuffed apartment where the first act takes place. Within moments of arriving the wary Miss Pettigrew becomes indispensable to
Delysia and before you can say “Moet Chandon,” Delysia has given the dowdy Pettigrew a makeover, softened her heart, has
introduced her to a romantic prospect of her own (played by Ciarán Hinds), and is relying on her to help her secure the lead in Phil’s
show. Phil, it seems, is going to announce his decision that very evening at a soiree to be hosted at Nick’s apartment. Naturally,
there will be many plot reverses as this charming little farce comes to its cream puff conclusion.
Director Bharat Nalluri perfectly realizes the rarefied atmosphere of this artificial, long gone world in which the characters all seem to
have the stage just under their feet. Sets, costumes and music help make this delightful soufflé rise and stay afloat. All this in
service to comedy of manner performances from McDormand, Adams and those easy on the eye male actors (Coward and Porter
would certainly be mad about these boys) and Shirley Henderson makes a great villain with her teeny, almost spectral voice and
razor sharp comic timing (she’s like a British Madeline Kahn). Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day seems so perfect for the stage that after
the movie runs its course one can only hope the producers will take this obvious cue and adapt it for the boards. It’s a delightful
little comedy as is or easily expanded into a musical of “The Drowsy Chaperone” variety. If only Noel or Cole were alive to write the
Life Is What You Make Of It:
The Life of Reilly-Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
3-5-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.