“I love this country’ says Charlie Chaplin after decanting from Great Britain to the United States of America in Richard Attenborough’s lush biopic. Indeed, Chaplin is very much a love letter, to the comic actor, writer and director, to the movies, to the past, but mainly to the US of A, which provides the transformative environment that turns the hero from a nobody to a somebody. But fame is fickle; the advent of talkies and WWII provide obstacles to Chaplin’s progress, and his personal life has one thumb on the scales when it comes to bad relationships. Chaplin is one of the few biopics of great men which put their bad relationships with women centre-stage, which might account for its failure.
But failure is not something we think about now for star Robert Downey Jr, arguable the world’s top box-office star over the last decade. At the time, he was making an impression in films like Weird Science, Less that Zero and True Believer, but landing the role of Chaplin was a game-changer, winning him a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination, and setting him on the rocky path to international recognition. He was an inspired choice for a role that Robin Williams was mooted for; he captures all the physical comedy, but also matches up to the challenges of a major biopic. Although his voice is heard throughout via the narrative devices of a career-spanning interview, the recognisable tones develop gradually of the course of the film. For an actor at 26, his performance is something of a precocious master-class, blending pathos and slapstick timing to striking effect.
‘I’m sorry, children, but it’s fish-heads again,’ says Chaplin’s mother while they live in poverty in London; Geraldine Chaplin plays her own grand-mother here, in an affecting role that fleshes-out Chaplin’s own anxieties about his family. So Chaplin’s escape to America allows him to finally re-invent himself as something more than a theatrical clown, but as a businessman, keen to understand how a projector works, or how a film is edited. It’s easy to see Chaplin as a substitute for Attenborough himself, and the hair and make-up job towards the end make the same connection; although not lauded in the way that Gandhi was, Chaplin is arguably Attenborough’s most personal film.
Los Angeles is presented as a rude, aggressive and dynamic environment, with Dan Ackroyd as shirtless, spitting producer Mack Sennett, David Duchovny as Chaplin’s regular cameraman, and Kevin Kline swashbuckling as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But with the beady eyes of J Edgar Hoover watching, Chaplin briefly enjoys unwise relationships with a series of women, played by Milla Jovovich, Penelope Ann Miller, Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis and Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard. It’s clear that Chaplin was driven to create and destroy his own relationships, but the result makes him vulnerable to Nazis and McCarthyists alike and leads to an exile from his adopted homeland, before a final return to Hollywood at the 1972 Academy Awards.
Attenborough underwent a similar transformation in terms of his career, from actor to producer and director, and Chaplin; the movie reflects his own journey. It’s a lavish, glitzy, sometimes clumsy movie that deserved better in terms of box-office. Seen today, it’s a loving tribute, a passion project tribute to a fondly remembered star of yesterday which somehow launched the biggest star of today. At a time when pretty much no-one is getting in and out of America, it’s worth casting a fond look backwards at the pivotal role played by dreamers and immigrants in making America great.