30 Years Ago: Chaplin (A Missed Opportunity)

According to IMDB, today is the is 30th anniversary of the U.S. wide release of the movie Chaplin (1992).

Don’t get too excited! I’m not here for any knee-jerk celebration! Well past the centenary of Chaplin’s birth, and nearing the golden anniversary of his death, the world continues to await a worthy dramatic screen telling of the life and career of the world’s greatest comedian Charlie Chaplin. Sir Richard Attenborough’s blockbuster bio-pic ain’t it.

Chaplin at once attempts too much and too little. Based on Chaplin’s autobiography and David Robinson’s seminal 1985 book Chaplin: His Life and Art, it was apparently originally intended to be an entire mini-series, but then reduced to a feature whose original cut was four hours long, and then finally trimmed to its present length of two and a half hours, which is both too long and not nearly long enough. I’m not surprised to know of Attenborough’s original ambition; this is the man who gave us Gandhi. And Chaplin’s story not only deserves that sort of epic treatment, it demands it. After all, Chaplin’s career lasted three quarters of the 20th century, he had over a half dozen wives and lovers, he knew all of the famous people in the world, and he figures in some way in or is somehow in dialogue with all the great world events and/or trends of his time: World War One, the Jazz Age, the Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War (right down to being a victim of HUAC). His life presents opportunities to talk about class, politics, sexuality, art, history. There’s even a true crime angle; after his death, his corpse was stolen by grave robbers. So whatever executives insisted on whittling the story down to its present length may have been pennywise, but they were also certainly pound foolish. Instead of this being a classic everyone positively HAS to see, and some people will want to watch many more times, it’s a film one sees once and is hesitant to recommend.

In the worst bio-pic tradition Chaplin attempts to hit every detail in the long chronology of Charlie Chaplin’s life in roughly the time it takes to have brunch. That is especially ironic in a story about a man whose signature artistic accomplishment was in slowing down the previously breakneck pace of slapstick in order to explore character. This movie never gets us close to Chaplin. As told, that’s clearly that’s part of Attenborough’s point. The older Chaplin, working on his memoir, is chided by his editor (Anthony Hopkins) for keeping us (his audience) at a distance. But you can do that (in fact you must do that) while also getting us close to his personality. I’ve read nearly every book there is about Chaplin —  there is so much about his character that is well known that doesn’t, can’t, wind up in this movie. Robert Downey, Jr does his best in the central role, but it’s far from good enough (How could it be?). Ironically, Downey (sort of mechanically) got the physical elements of the slapstick, but he is wide of the mark in terms of character. Charlie Chaplin was above all a guy who could see the beauty in a flower. I can’t picture Robert Downey Jr as a guy who could EVER see the beauty in a flower, let alone play someone who could. He specializes in fast-talking, insensitive cynics. He should play Charlie Chaplin’s agent.

Chaplin starts out promisingly enough with its images of Edwardian London, and with Geraldine Chaplin playing her own troubled grandmother. These traumatic early years of privation form the crux of the story, the root of Chaplin’s character, but that gets quickly lost in the avalanche of “greatest hits” that follow.  Crucial  moments are breezed over. You barely meet John Thaw as Fred Karno, or Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett and Marisa Tormei as Mabel Normand before they sail by. Kevin Kline clearly  fancies himself as the right type for Douglas Fairbanks but he is too old and frankly not macho enough. Others flying past in what are essentially cameo turns are Penelope Ann Miller as Edna Purviance, Paul Rhys as Sydney Chaplin, David Duchovny as cameraman Roland Totheroh, Milla Jovovich as Chaplin’s first wife Mildred Harris, Deborah Moore as second wife Lita Grey, Diane Lane as Paulette Godard, Nancy Travis as the trouble-making Joan Barry, James Woods as her loathsome lawyer, Kevin Dunn as J. Edgar Hoover, and in a potentially provocative touch, Moira Kelly in dual roles as Chaplin’s boyhood love Hetty Kelly, and his final, lasting bride Oona O’Neill (though that interesting idea is not much explored). Right? This is as many stars and characters as you find in Roots or Holocaust or Centennial, productions five or six times as long.

But, look, there’s no way I wouldn’t be very hard on this movie. Plenty of people like it. I continue to await one that does the subject justice.

For more on Charlie Chaplin see my biographical posts here and here, and over 100 additional posts on the comedian and all of his films here.