"Chaplin" (Richard Attenborough, 1983) Elephantine, lugubrious bio-pic of the man underneath "The Little Tramp," Charles Spencer Chaplin. If more bio-pics were this ill-serving, it would be good reason to avoid the limelight altogether. Years after sweeping the Oscar-race with his ever-so-respectful biography of "Gandhi"* (starring Ben Kingsley), director Attenborough took on his famous countryman's auto-biography and varnished it with the same extra coats of shellac (with broad strokes) that made a still-life out of his film of "A Chorus Line."
Charles Chaplin is a more-than-worthy subject for a sweeping biography that covers a huge amount of history in both the times of the U.S. and England, but also of the film industry. Chaplin was one of the rare few film-makers to make it out of the silent era alive and functioning, amassing a great fortune, becoming beloved world-wide—his Tramp character was recognized world-wide, with even more reach than Mickey Mouse—and treading the then-virgin territory of film star-dom with all its glamor, responsibilities...and pit-falls. Only thing, part of the problem was too many virgins. A clown-comedian who made his living, first by exposing the pomposity of authority, and then—as the Tramp—actively fighting it, he ran afoul of the authorities who didn't take too kindly to his irreverent side, little noting that the Tramp's triumphs were a balm for a restless public, sublimating dissatisfaction in a permanent trap on-screen, keeping it from spilling into reality. They should have thanked him. But instead, the authoritarians, be they Nazi's or J. Edgar Hoover, fought him. And Chaplin had enough hubris and pomposity himself, to think that the public would always rally to his side.
Now, that's a story. One that Chaplin would appreciate, if he wasn't living it. But, instead, Chaplin saw himself as he always saw himself—the hero. You could say of Chaplin what Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of her President-father Theodore: "He wanted to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral." Chaplin loved being the Clown and the center of attention, but he also wanted to be taken very seriously, as he saw himself. Quite the dichotomy. That Chaplin couldn't embrace his own pretensiousness as part of the act was what turned his reel-comedy into real-tragedy.
But don't drop any tears for Chaplin. He lived an extraordinary life...of his own creation. Well, feel bad for him for this movie, perhaps.
The problems start with the screenplay. The timeline uses his films as the spine of it, set up by little incidents that inspired them. A more fitting strategy for a film-symposium than a movie, especially a movie about a comedian: Nothing kills a joke faster than having to explain it. The films are the high-lights; they are punctuated by explorations of Chaplin's relationships with the women in his life, starting with his Mother (eerily played by Geraldine Chaplin, the person's real grand-daughter!), then his lost loves, whether by his own design or by his inability to maintain a love greater than his own. This is interrupted by the lamest of devices—going over the autobiography with his ghost-writer (Anthony Hopkins), in a kind of literary psychiatric session. They amount to repeated episodes of the aging Chaplin clinging to his fantasies and the writer calling "Bull-shit," once literally.
This may be a convenient way to film in the blanks, but it also splinters the narrative force. Are we to believe Charlie, the biographer, or what we see with our own eyes being represented? And as the subject is a film-maker, it's a bit like falling down a rabbit-hole of fun-house mirrors. Who do you trust? The end-result is taking none of it very seriously, as Attenborough can't resist speeding up some episodes in a representation of silent film techniques. Nothing is real. A little contrary for a biography.
Then, the tone is so heavy. Starting with a title sequence of Chaplin taking off his "Tramp" make-up (exposing the real man, get it?) to a melancholy score by John Barry, that would be more suited for a funeral, the film never gives up the tone of self-important tragedy that ultimately swamps the movie and any good feelings that one might have for Chaplin, the man, his work or the movie.
But, every dark cloud has a silver lining. In the case of "Chaplin," it is its star, Robert Downey, Jr. Downey was a once-removed member of "The Brat Pack," the coterie of young actors who buzzed through Hollywood in the late 70's and 80's, appearing in ensemble pieces by John Hughes and other directors. Appearances in his father's films, a couple of featured roles and a disasterous stint on "Saturday Night Live" offer no hint of the disciplined, exemplary work he brings to the title role, eerily evoking the look—especially the smile of Chaplin—and, most amazingly, pulling off the physical comedy—Chaplin's particularly physical comedy—the role required. He was honored with his first Oscar nomination (losing to Al Pacino's first Oscar win for "Scent of a Woman."), but, after "Chaplin," Downey's performances would turn more physical, quick-silvered and nuanced, paving the way for a universal respect for his craft that even an errant personal life couldn't derail. Downey's evocation is the one reason to watch "Chaplin," rather than, say, reading about him...or better yet, watching the man's films.
The immigrant looks upon the Promised Land: Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin looks at a strip of this new medium, film, left on the cutting room floor. Of course, the footage is of him.
* "Gandhi" beat out "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial" for Best Picture that year. I understand the Academy's hesitancy to give the statue for an alien combination of "Shane" and "Lassie," but no amount of prestige attached to a project can replace a film's status years after the fact. This one was a mistake. And short-sighted, replacing typical Awards reverence for "prestige," rather than popularity or endurance.