Truly Great Movies: Chaplin (1992)
Chaplin is directed by the Right Honorable Richard Attenborough (Baron Attenborough), the noted British actor turned Oscar-winning director (he won for Gandhi in 1982). Attenborough was born as Charlie Chaplin’s star was at its peak. He no doubt grew up watching Chaplin’s iconic performances as “The Tramp”. Chaplin’s background couldn’t have been more different from Attenborough’s, who grew up comfortable and well-educated. Chaplin had to literally re-invent himself, rising above a hardscrabble childhood to become one of the most beloved movie stars of all time.
Attenborough’s Chaplin is neither gritty nor 100% accurate in telling Charlie’s life story. Much like the luster of the movies themselves, it is awash in sentiment and grandiose gestures. Still, I think Charlie Chaplin himself would have approved of this gloriously gorgeous version of his life’s story. What life itself does not render beautiful, we have artists to paint in all the colors necessary for the imagination to fill in the gaps.
The movie’s strongest asset is Robert Downey, Jr.’s seamless and engrossing performance as the title character. While Downey’s personal life at the time (drug addiction, allegations of domestic abuse) was tabloid fodder, his acting skills were sharper than they’d ever been. Downey takes Chaplin from a struggling slapstick performer to one of the greatest film artists the world has ever known, and he takes his audience on Charlie’s journey as if they were a trusted friend.
The story is framed as Chaplin dictates his autobiography to a curious ghost writer (Anthony Hopkins). The framing works in terms of giving Charlie a chance to give his own narration of events as they occur. His memory is at times sentimental, at times morose, but most often it is scathing and sly.
The opening scenes of the film show Charlie’s disastrous childhood. His mother (played in a genius bit of casting by her real-life granddaughter, Charlie’s daughter Geraldine Chaplin) was mentally unstable, a failed stage performer who drifted from one odd job to the next trying to keep Charlie and his older half-brother, Sydney, out of the London poorhouse.
Eventually, Sydney introduces Chaplin to the British vaudeville king, Fred Karno, and Chaplin successfully tours with Karno’s troupe as their key slapstick comedian. While on a tour in the United States, Chaplin is noticed by B-movie king Mack Senett (Dan Akroyd), who hires Chaplin thanks to his comedic timing. Chaplin is not just a brilliant comedian, he’s also a tireless worker, moving up the ranks at the Keystone Film Company to become a director as well as a performer. He eventually becomes the studio’s number one asset; his films cost pennies to make and earn thousands in profit.
Some of the movie’s finest scenes take place during Chaplin’s times at Keystone, when he teaches Senett as well as the other actors what audiences really want see: compelling stories about characters that they can relate to and feel for.
Eventually, Charlie establishes his own company, and thanks to his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks (played with wit and charm by Kevin Kline), creates United Artists, the first studio run by actors and directors themselves. As Chaplin himself states, “The inmates have taken over the asylum”.
The middle and end portions of the film deal with Chaplin’s resistance to change in Hollywood with the coming of sound, as well as his political dealings and run-ins with J. Edgar Hoover, who was convinced that Chaplin was a Communist and would bring about the downfall of American cinema.
Chaplin’s artistry compelled him to make the movies he believed that working class Americans wanted to see, and as times changed, his success would waver but never quite diminish. He had an uncanny eye for smart, moving social satire in films such as Modern Times and The Great Dictator that went unappreciated in his own era, but these movies are mesmerizing and still relevant when viewed today.
The film focuses on Chaplin’s romantic life as much as his professional one. He is first in love with the Irish-born chorus girl Hetty Kelly (Moira Kelly), but it is a chaste and unconsummated love; Kelly would become the gamine inspiration for all of his heroines on film. He is next entangled with the dim-witted child star Mildred Harris (Milla Jovovich), who nearly scams him out of his life’s work. After an ill-fated on set affair with the mother of his two older boys, Chaplin finds brief happiness in the arms of successful and talented actress Paulette Goddard (Diane Lane), but gets so lost in the editing of Modern Times that he loses Goddard’s heart as well as his sense of self.
Still, Chaplin would have his happy romantic ending when he met the decades-younger Oona O’Neill (played by Moira Kelly in a trick casting move meant to show how Oona was the real life counterpart of his dream girl Hetty Kelly), daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. With Oona, he would find the contentment and family he always craved. They would go on to have eight children together before Charlie’s death in 1977.
The artistic style of Chaplin is one of soft lighting, simple conversation and an utterly believable performance by Downey as the man himself. By the end of the film, it is almost impossible to distinguish the real-life Charlie in film clips from Downey’s interpretation.
The supporting actors are also top-notch, most notably Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, and Paul Rhys as Sydney Chaplin.
John Barry’s moving and melancholy score feels lifted right out of a Chaplin film itself, and it never overpowers the action on-screen. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist shows a Hollywood just beginning to come into its own, and what a sight it is for modern eyes.
Overall, Chaplin is an imperfect film, but a wonderful tribute to a man who would no doubt enjoy and smirk at how a slightly fictionalized, dramatic version of his life story could be so emotionally powerful. After all, Chaplin himself once said, “We think too much and feel too little.”