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Chaplin 1992 ****

“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.

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    • To each his own, but for me, Downey Jr is great here, and there’s some striking scenes; when he discovers his love is dead moments before he launches into a crowd of autograph hunters. Hard to be that good is the film doesn’t spark at all IMHO!

  1. Excellent review. It’s been years since I saw this film and now you’ve made me want to re-watch it. How young does he look in that photo at the top? I recently re-watched Weird Science and was surprised by his appearance. Great fun, that one😀

    • Oh, yes, Weird Science is never far from my thoughts! And yes, he was young for this kind of stardom, but over the piece, has handled things pretty well.

  2. I remember being disappointed by this when it came out. Maybe I was expecting less about personal relationships and more about the magic of the movies. But will definitely take another look.

    • Chaplin seems more in love with America than in any of the women he meets, and to me that’s the point. But it certainly wasn’t the story people wanted back in 1992…

  3. Movie biopics always make me cringe, as I wonder just how many liberties the director, etc take to make a “better movie”. It is like those historical fiction based on real accounts books. The author can make stuff up because it is fiction but the tone is meant to be non-fiction. Which is NOT COOL.

    • Agreed. Get history from history books. I’m not a fan of the biopic genre, but in this case, I think the restult says more about the author/director Attenborough than it does about the three writers of the script, or the two books it was based on. Both Chaplin and Attenborough loved the transformative power of America, and so the intent matches nicely on this occassion.

      • Is there a genre of movie that is about directors and learning about them through the movies they’ve made?
        You’ve have to really be into movies (or do it for a job perhaps? wink wink) to see glimpses of the director in his movies.

        Personally, I just want guns, explosions and either robots, elves or John Wick 😀

    • I literally just rewatched this last night and was very impressed; there are biopic cliches, yes, but it makes plenty of great points about the star, even if the mechanics are familiar.

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