THE LIFE OF REILLY (Barry Poltermann, Frank Anderson). 84 minutes. Opens Friday (November 30). Rating: NNN
Decades before Queer As Folk and Will & Grace, there was Charles Nelson Reilly , best known as the fey 70s game show contestant who wore sailor hats, toupées and, along with frequent TV co-star Paul Lynde, perfected the art of campy innuendo for generations of North American viewers.
This documentary is essentially a taping of Reilly's autobiographical solo show, which recounts his misfit Bronx childhood, his troubled family (a racist mom, an alcoholic dad, a lobotomized aunt) and his rise through the entertainment world from theatre usher to Uta Hagen student to Broadway trouper.
Not surprisingly, there are lots of funny anecdotes, like the time Reilly surprised a snobby guest on The Tonight Show by reciting from Hamlet, and not-so-funny ones, like his talk with a TV exec who said, "They don't let queers on television." And who knew the king of camp was bosom buddies with macho man Burt Reynolds?
Directors Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson rarely venture beyond the theatre performance to punch up Reilly's story, and they show us things rather than let the actor tell us. Also, it's a shame Reilly doesn't reveal a bit more about his sexuality or what life was like in closeted Hollywood.
Still, this is a warm, affectionate look at a courageous clown (Reilly died last May) who, despite many obstacles, helped carve out a space for queers in pop culture.