Jarrod Emerson’s Tribute to Richard Attenborough
Part 8: CHAPLIN (1992)
Richard Attenborough entered the 1990s with another amazing biopic, this time profiling one of the silver screen’s early icons: the legendary Charlie Chaplin. Adapted from both Chaplin’s own autobiography and David Robinson’s book, Chaplin: His Life and His Art, the film chronicles Chaplin’s career—as well his personal highs and lows. In his Switzerland mansion, circa 1960s, elderly Chaplin works through the manuscript of his autobiography with editor George Hayden. Through lengthy flashbacks, the two recount the various chapters of Chaplin’s life. His poverty stricken childhood in England, his rise to stardom in early Hollywood, his many friendships and romances, and his denial of re-entry to the United States during the McCarthy era are all depicted.
I have heard the theory that directors don’t age well. I challenge anyone who agrees with that statement to view Chaplin immediately. A rich, sentimental and intimate portrait of an artist, Chaplin marks one of Richard Attenborough crowning achievements. A scene that I found particularly moving occurs early in the film. A young (perhaps 5-year-old) Charlie watches as his mentally fragile mother (played by Chaplin’s real life daughter, Geraldine) gets booed off an English club stage. Moments later, little Charlie resumes his mother’s routine, winning the crowd over. This sequence foreshadows just how talented Chaplin is. While Chaplin is hardly the first film to depict old Hollywood, rarely have I felt so seamlessly transported to the past as in this film. Throughout the film, Attenborough incorporates various storytelling techniques to great effect (wipes, dissolves, even a fast-paced slapstick sequence) to mimic old-time Hollywood. These devices, combined with a wonderful emotional score by the late John Barry, really help to bring the past to life.
After watching two different actors portray Charlie Chaplin through his childhood and adolescence, we arrive at our main Chaplin, Robert Downey, Jr. While today’s audiences may primarily think of him as Tony Stark/Iron Man, it is important to remember Downey’s lengthy career prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His Academy-Award-nominated turn in Chaplin is a testament to his versatility as an actor. Kudos to the makeup artist who convincingly ages the then 27-year-old Downey from early adulthood into his eighties. However, it is it truly Downey’s performance that sells me. Downey gives us a Chaplin who is not just extraordinarily talented, but also emotionally vulnerable. Chaplin’s dedication to his craft and his well-documented stubbornness often put him at odds with those around him.
A huge supporting cast of actors portray Chaplin’s various collaborators and friends, including Kevin Kline as fellow silent-film icon Douglas Fairbanks, Dan Aykroyd as movie producer Mack Sennett, Marisa Tomei as actress Mabel Normand, and David Duchovny as Chaplin’s regular cameraman Roland Totheroh. Milla Jovovich, Deborah Moore, and Diane Lane all appear as Charlie’s first three wives. But perhaps most effective is Moira Kelly in a dual role as Hetty, a young performer and Chaplin’s first love in England, and his final spouse Oona O’Neill. She and Downey play very well together. While I am unsure of why Kelly was cast in two roles, I suspect that when Chaplin meets Oona, he sees something in her that reminds him of his long lost first love.
With Chaplin it is clear that Attenborough had not lost his touch. While the film received criticism for deviating from fact, any retelling of history is open to dramatic interpretation. Whether it is based in fact or not, a good film should tell a rich story with three-dimensional characters that we, the audience, care about. I am happy to say that Chaplin does just that.
© Jarrod Emerson (12/10/16) FF2 Media