Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show about his life comes to the screen.
Dir. Frank L. Anderson & Barry Poltermann, 2007, 84 min
Tell me that Charles Nelson Reilly had a long and distinguished stage career, winning several Tonys, and you will receive a blank stare. Tell me that he was a prolific television personality, a staple of numerous game shows and a guest of Johnny Carson over a hundred times, and I will have nothing for you. Tell me that he voiced The Dirty Bubble on Spongebob Squarepants? Oh, that guy! At least, that’s how it was before this documentary. The Life of Reilly made me deeply, deeply ashamed of my ignorance, because Reilly seems like one of the best people ever.
After what was supposed to be a commencement speech devolved into a three-hour monologue, Reilly decided to spin his experiences in life and show business into a one-man play. Save It for the Stage had a critically acclaimed run, culminating in a final performance in 2004, the one filmed for this doc. In the play and film, Reilly relates his memories of his youth, and what shaped him into becoming an actor, and then how he broke into Broadway and later Hollywood. It might not be particularly memorable, except that the man wields an astonishing wit, quick and bombastic and utterly hilarious. He’s a spectacular stage presence, and I wished that the movie were twice as long, so that I could have watched him work more.
What strikes me most about Reilly, though, is how he embodies the drive to perform in a way that I’ve seen in few other entertainers. He speaks often of an “inner voice” that urges him to act, act, act! He’s been putting on a show since he was little, making puppet plays for his family. Creativity truly seems to be a spark set off early in life that becomes an increasingly uncontrollable chain reaction as one gets older, until it can’t be contained any longer.
Reilly knows how to pluck out all the most unique elements of his history and present them in a warm, relatable, terrifically observed way. His recollections of growing up in The Bronx with a depressive father, racist mother, and lobotomized aunt are at turns gut-busting and heart wrenching. He can turn from the comedic to the tragic at a hat flip, and he channels both modes perfectly. One moment he tells of how he survived the Hartford circus fire, of seeing a girl with her face burned off, and the next he’s dropping another one of his mother’s adorable racist tirades. And it doesn’t create a dissonant mood at all. The funny parts make the sad parts all the more affecting, and vice-versa.
Despite being a filmed stage show, the movie is surprisingly cinematic. Directors Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann pull the camera away from the play to archival footage when they can. They expand Reilly’s world beyond the little theater he’s performing in. Perhaps recontextualizing the monologues this way changes their meaning, since we no longer have to imagine what Reilly describes, but I wouldn’t say that the film is dumbing anything down. There’s only so many ways to shoot on a stage, and traveling through time allows us to empathize with Reilly on a different level. The directors are making use of cinema’s strengths, and I think that watching this movie and watching a mere tape of the play would be two different experiences.
The Life of Reilly took me completely by surprise. Discovering Charles Nelson Reilly is like finding buried treasure… if it was a treasure that half the rest of the world already knew about somehow. But standing alone from anything about Reilly’s long stage and television career, it’s a brilliant portrait of a very funny man. Listening to him feels like another conversation with a wise person.