‘The Legend of Lylah Clare’ Gets Fest Relaunch and Director Robert Aldrich Gets Reputation Rehabbed

When Robert Aldrich’s 1968 Hollywood insider yarn, “The Legend of Lylah Clare” screens at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, Maine, it will represent much more than a simple revival of a New Hollywood-era roman à clef.

The film’s presentation on July 12 will include a discussion between actor Michael Murphy, who co-stars in the film, and former MGM publicity director Mike Kaplan, who has from the film’s earliest screenings defended both the film’s director, who Kaplan feels was “grossly maligned” by the depiction of him in Ryan Murphy’s limited series “Feud,” and the film, which monumentally tanked both critically and commercially when first released. 

Kaplan recalls “I loved the script, and I loved the film. MGM had an unexceptional slate at the time. I was a big fan at the get-go.”  

But as MGM’s New York City-based publicity chief, Kaplan watched helplessly as others, including MGM’s marketing team, had their own plans for how to launch the film. 

Kaplan was not a fan of their approach.  

“The L.A. publicity team had a big premiere for the film,” recalls Kaplan. “It was Kim Novak sucking her thumb basically. Advertising and publicity were two different things.” 

Undaunted by the unfortunate West Coast presentation of “Clare,” Kaplan decided “I could marshal the press around the movie. I created a gossip column style handout.” 

According to Kaplan, there was a small payoff for that approach and the fate of the film was out of his hands. “We got good reviews from Hollis Alpert and Judith Crist and others. But their campaign was locked, and they weren’t going to change it. They just essentially dumped it. And I always thought the film deserved more attention than it ever got.” 

Variety’s Robert Hawkins, who reviewed the film, basically agreed with Kaplan. At the film’s premiere in San Sebastian, Hawkins deemed “Clare” a “caustically cutting film set in Hollywood,” while lauding cast members Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Novak and Murphy and predicting the film would be a “crowd pleaser.”

But it wasn’t.

Adding to Kaplan’s disappointment, even the film’s director gave up on the film and moved on. 

In Kaplan’s view, “Aldrich knew the power structure, which is in ‘Lylah Clare.’ And he knew what was going on. He was not happy with the response to the film. It wasn’t a commercial success. But,” Kaplan explains, “Those guys from that period didn’t have the same love for the films that failed as their feelings for their hits. They knew that you’re only as good as your recent hit, so they didn’t acknowledge their films that failed the same way.” 

Decades passed and Kaplan, a veteran of campaigns for esteemed filmmakers such as Mike Hodges and Stanley Kubrick, kept the flame of hope alive for “Clare,” while also rallying an industry outcry over the portrayal in the Emmy-winning limited series of Aldrich as “a weak toady for the Studio chiefs,” while those in the know have celebrated the former Directors Guild president for being completely the opposite of that depiction. Most historians cite Aldrich as a pioneering independent filmmaker quite ahead of his time.

When “Feud” first ran in 2017, Kaplan was so upset he called upon top filmmakers to make statements decrying “Feud’s” feckless case of mistaken identity. 

Former DGA board member and noted director Walter Hill (“48 Hours,” “Streets of Fire,” “The Warriors”) stated, “In addition to his artistic achievements, which were considerable in many genres, Robert Aldrich achieved the greatest contractual breakthroughs for our members. In closed-door sessions lasting several weeks, he locked horns with Lew Wasserman, the movie industry’s toughest negotiator. Making him into a weak, vacillating person doing whatever the studio wanted is a travesty… and shameful.” 

Aldrich and Oscar Rudolph, his assistant director and consultant, were friends for five decades. His son, director Alan Rudolph (“Welcome to L.A.,” “Choose Me,” “The Moderns,”) remembers: “Robert Aldrich was synonymous with ferocious support for the underdog and what’s fair, challenging myopic authority and forging creative independence. I recall going to private screenings as a boy, so blistering in their head-on contempt for societal intolerance and political ignorance, my head hasn’t stopped spinning. He was David to Hollywood’s Goliath. He created his own studio to battle their control. Portraying him in this program was not only odious and slanderous, but exactly opposite of everything he was and stood for. Such an affront to the accuracy of the man and film history is the equivalent of chief counsel Joseph Welch offering up innocent names to Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt instead of his chastisement of the Senator’s lack of decency and defeating him forever.” 

Back on the “Clare” revival front, Kaplan shares credit for the Maine event with MIFF artistic director Ken Eisen, who Kaplan calls “a man with a very sharp, astute sense of film and its history. He knew ‘Lylah Clare’ and believed it deserved this new presentation. And Michael Murphy, who lives in Portland and had been a lifetime achievement honoree at the Festival also understood the quality of the film.”

To bring “Clare” to the public even for only one night has inspired Kaplan to unveil a poster campaign that he first conceived back at the time of the film’s initial release, as the marketing vet is still hopeful that “a new generation might discover this distinctive film. I guarantee, no one has ever seen a more powerful and uncompromising film ending than ‘Lylah Clare.’ By re-introducing the film and filming the conversation about it, I hope all this can lead to further exposure.”

Which means, for Kaplan, the “Legend” has only begun.

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