The Life of Reilly 

Four stars (NR)

A number of high-profile movies open this week; several look promising, only one looks awful. My suggestion is that you make time in your busy schedule to drive to Key Cinemas on the Southside and check out The Life of Reilly, the film version of Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show about his life.

At this point, one of two things is likely happening. You’re either wondering who Charles Nelson Reilly is or you know him and you’re wondering why you should be interested in a movie about the man.

For those who don’t know, there were two openly gay guys on television in the ’60s and ’70s, Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Nobody said out loud that they were homosexuals, everybody just knew. Both men made their livings by being funny sissies. Paul Lynde, Uncle Arthur on Bewitched and center square on the Hollywood Squares forever, was the funnier of the two, with his withering one-liners and passive-aggressive style. Charles Nelson Reilly was the silly one, the less threatening one. Permanently in a dither, he had a trademark laugh that sounded unlike any laugh I’ve ever heard.

Reilly won a Tony in 1962 for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and was nominated two years later for Hello, Dolly!. He was a cast member of the TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and the kids’ show Lidsville. He was a regular on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and a guest star on dozens of TV shows. In the ’90s, he won new fans from his memorable appearances as Jose Chung in The X-Files and Millennium. He received a Tony nomination for directing in the ’90s, along with another in a decades-long string of Emmy nominations.

But Reilly was best known for his game show appearances in the ’70s and ’80s, most notably on The Match Game, where his campy demeanor and double-entendres spiced up countless afternoons.

The Life of Reilly documents Reilly’s critically-acclaimed one-man show, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, which he performed for years all over the U.S. This performance, from October of 2004, marked the last time he did the show. He died in May of this year.

Looking old and assured, Reilly lays out his life with great style and humor. He introduces us to his mother, a baseball bat-wielding racist; his father, who turned down a job offer from Walt Disney because his wife didn’t want to move; and other family members. His bittersweet anecdotes are fascinating and often funny, and his presentation style is bold and clear. He often expresses amazement at events in his life, but never self-pity. From time to time, he offers color commentary on the show itself, but for the most part, he simply stays out of his own way. Instead of making declarations about his life, his challenges, his differentness, he focuses on recounting the stories. The declarations come from which stories he chooses to tell, from pregnant pauses, from a hand gesture here or there, but not by whining.

I wish I could have seen the full, three-hour stage production of the show, but the 87-minute abridged version presented in The Life of Reilly is a treat. Who knew that the hand-wringing guy with the goofy laugh could be so mesmerizing?

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