Lylah Clare was a movie star from some years ago who died on her wedding night in very mysterious circumstances, but whose allure is such that some of those who knew her in the motion picture industry wish to make a film about her life. But who should they get to star? Producer Bart Langner (Milton Selzer) thinks he has found just the right girl, Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak), a young, lookalike ingénue who can be whipped into shape as the ideal embodiment of Lylah. But as the deceased star's widower and Svengali Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch) must be involved trouble could be on the cards...
Here's a film that has been prompting audiences to go "What the hell is this thing?!" ever since its initial release, not that a tremendous amount of people saw it back then, and it has remained either a cult movie or a notorious turkey ever since, depending on who you speak to - it could be both. It was the production director Robert Aldrich made as his first effort after hitting a mega-success with The Dirty Dozen and offered carte blanche to do whatever he wanted for his next few films. Some say this independence was his artistic undoing, as the warm reception for the work of what had been a much-respected director before just about evaporated over the next few years up to his death even if he enjoy sporadic hits.
Sure, he had The Killing of Sister George and The Longest Yard to come, but even they were not universally liked, so while his cult following only grew, with the wider public his name lost its badge of quality, and you could pinpoint that change from the moment they got wind of what Lylah Clare was about. Many of those involved - including Ernest Borgnine, who bellows his way through the studio boss role - claimed that not only did they not know what Aldrich was getting at, but perhaps he was not so certain himself, allowing the film to get away from him thanks to having too much creative control. Naturally, this is the sort of oddity that may fail to appeal to the general audience, but is ideal for those who seek out the more eccentric and overripe properties that Hollywood throws up every once in a while.
At the time this was judged to be an unintentional laugh riot on the scale of another, then recent film about the corrupting nature of the movie business, The Oscar, but while that has gone on to little but derisive chortles, Lylah Clare does have its defenders. That was down to the overheated melodrama on display, which may be ridiculous but seems to be trying to impart some message or other about how Hollywood chews up its talent and spits it out once it's done: the titles see Novak wandering down the stars on the Boulevard and noting all those names who had died too young thanks to the pressure or bad choices or whatever. Aldrich, adapting a television drama in his own style, was obviously feeling very sincere about this, as it did echo Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to an extent.
Except this was not a former star trying to recreate old glories, it was a new starlet aiming to establish herself; the irony being that Novak was making a comeback here after a few years away from the screen. Even though she was still in her mid-thirties at the time, Lylah Clare was such a disaster it painted her, unfairly, as a hasbeen from then on, unable to headline a movie and make it a hit in the process. Aficionados can observe parallels to her actual career with the character, seeing as Novak was never comfortable in the studio system, appeared to be harbouring a tumultous and fragile emotional life beneath the ice queen surface, and was subject to being ordered about by her own Svengali, much to her unease. Where this analogy falls apart is that she was never possessed by a dead celebrity, spoke (and laughed) in a German accent, or ended her career in the frankly outrageous manner Elsa does here - you will not believe what they tried to get away with for the finale, metaphorical dog food ad and all. Yet in a way, it is kind of majestic in its absurdity. Music by Frank De Vol.