Every so often, when I look up the historical critical context of a film, I am surprised by what I find. Most often I see films that are schlock get undue praise, but since most of anything in life is bad (lest we’d not notice the good). This is not unusual. Then there are good or great films that are severely dissed. Almost every Stanley Kubrick film, post-1970, falls into this category. But, then there are films which are nice little films, not particularly bad, but also nowhere near great, that just elicit an off reaction from critics. Such a film is Richard Attenborough’s 1992 film, Chaplin, on the life of filmdom’s first true superstar. Is it a great film? No. It’s a rather standard biopic, and pretty much in line with what the director did, a decade earlier, in Gandhi. Like that film, this one features a previously little known actor who ‘arrived’ via a career-making turn in the title role. In Gandhi it was Ben Kingsley. In Chaplin it is Robert Downey Jr.
Most of the kvetching revolves around the fact that the film uses a flashback sequence, or that a character played by Anthony Hopkins is fictive, or that the film focuses too much on the personal and sex life of Chaplin. But, let’s look at these plaints. First, that a work of art uses a standard technique does not mean that it is trite. It can be trite, or it can be used very effectively. This film splits the difference. It’s neither here nor there in that regard. Second, so what that the Hopkins character was not ‘real’? Again, it’s a standard technique, and like the flashback structure, the use of a fictive character is neither here nor there. Third, a biopic could focus on the art of an artist, if the artist was not a film star, to great effect. But, since Chaplin was a film star, the reason the film exists is because everyone knows who he is, in his art. Therefore, only hints of his personal life are fodder for any extrapolation. And the only nudity the film shows is a rear view shot of Milla Jovovich’s buttocks, as she portrays Chaplin’s first wife, Mildred Harris.
That said, and despite the assorted sex scandals that littered his personal life, Chaplin’s personal life was rather dull. The real flaw of the film is that which haunts most biopics, and that is it tries to do the cradle to grave schtick, instead of picking a specific period of the comedian’s life, and expounding upon it. One of the best biopics of all time, Patton, follows this method. The DVD, by LionsGate, is the 15th Anniversary Edition. Despite that honorific, the DVD is not top notch. Yes, the film transfer, in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, is well done, but there is no audio commentary on the disk. This is an alarming trend on many DVDs, especially considering that the costs for producing them has dropped precipitously in the last decade. There are a few bonuses, but they are meager. There’s a brief home movie of Chaplin and Paulette Goddard cruising on his yacht off the California coast. There’s a featurette on Chaplin’s life and career, one on his life, and also one called The Most Famous Man In The World, on the phenomenon of Chaplin becoming the first truly global superstar. There’s also the original theatrical trailer. The box for the DVD mistakenly lists the film’s running time at 135 minutes; although it is 144 minutes long.
As for the film’s technical aspects, there is a quite good score by John Barry, and a serviceable script by Diana Hawkins, William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, and William Goldman. The cinematography, by Ingmar Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, is solid, but not spectacular. Aside from the first few minutes of the film, where Downey, as Chaplin, removes his makeup, in a sepia tint, there is precious little made of Nykvist’s talents.
The acting, though, is superb, in all aspects; starting with Downey, who never lapses from his affected British accent. This is the role that transformed him from a minor teen movie star, in the 1980s, into a leading man. He never mimics the real Chaplin. Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine, plays her own grandmother, Hannah, and although the role is small, she does a good job of projecting the insanity that landed Chaplin’s mother in an insane asylum. Paul Rhys is solid as Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s older half-brother, with Jewish blood, and Dan Aykroyd is good as Mack Sennett, who gave Chaplin his first break into the movies. But, the best two performances in the film, other than Downey’s, come from Kevin Kline, as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Diane Lane, as Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife. While Lane only has a few scenes with Downey, they are the most natural of all his scenes with any of his wives, and one gets the sense of a ‘connection’ between the two actors as artists. But, her appearance is limited to just a few scenes which show the arc of their relationship. Kline has perhaps the second meatiest role in the film, and makes the most of it, showing wit, perception, and a certain ineffable flair that the real Fairbanks reputedly had. In a sense, the film that this film could have been would have revolved around the friendship of these two me, for while Chaplin was the biggest star in the world, Fairbanks was the biggest dramatic star of the silent film era.
But, after the Fairbanks character dies, there is little left in the film, save for the latter years of Chaplin’s life, and these are not that interesting. The film perks up toward the end, though, when we see scenes of the real Chaplin’s films, as Downey (who ages well as Chaplin- kudos to the makeup people on the film), prepares to accept his 1972 Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. But, the ending of the film makes one loop back to its beginning, and an early scene of Chaplin, as a child, hamming it up on a vaudeville stage, after his mother is booed off. It reminded me of the beginning of the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? And, I think the film might have done well, if it had not followed the Chaplin-Fairbanks axis, to follow that film’s structure, and leave the whole middle of Chaplin’s life- his life as a superstar, alone, and focus on his early and later lives.
That said, it’s still a good, solid film, and the reactions of some critics is just silly. On the film aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes, as example, not a one of the eight so-called Top Critics, recommended the film. Here are some highlights:
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert (who mistakenly notes James Woods as Chaplin’s attorney, whereas he plays the lawyer for one of Chaplin’s lovers) wrote:
Rarely has a modern biopic so slavishly tried to connect every event in a man's life with its inspiration earlier in the same life. Charlie loves and loses a young girl in London, and so pursues too-young women all of his life. He sees a blind girl in London, and later makes "City Lights." He sees a film of Hitler, and decides to make "The Great Dictator." He sees men out of work, and . . ."Chaplin" ironically contains the mechanism for its own criticism. As the movie tiresomely returns to Chaplin's home in Switzerland so that the writer can ask him still more questions about episodes Charlie has left vague in his autobiography, I imagined another conversation, in which an interviewer is determined to penetrate the murkiness of Attenborough's film. Why, sir, did you spend so much time on the sex life? Why not more about the movies? And where in the finished film is the greatness of Chaplin that presumably inspired you to make it?
But, of course, Chaplin did get his ideas as the film describes them. That is how artists and creative people operate. Granted, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls was not conceived that way, but, well, we’ll let that one lie. And, as for Chaplin’s greatness, it lies in the man and his portrayer. That Attenborough made only a solid film is true; but then, wherefore the clock without its hands?
Internet critic James Berardinelli wrote:
It's easy to pick out the single major flaw of Chaplin. The narrative is too ambitious. Attempting to condense seventy-eight years into one-hundred and forty-four minutes is a Herculean task that defeats a director of even Richard Attenborough's accomplishments. There's too much material, and, because the story is so rich, characters and events go whizzing by at dizzying speeds. Chaplin becomes a series of scenes and images rather than a cohesive whole.
And, he gets it; although it is a generic (or genetic?) flaw of biopics, rather than specific to this film. And while the complaints about Anthony Hopkins’ character are wrong, in that they are aimed at his being fictive, they are right in the sense that this is the most pointless and ill-acted character in the film, for all the character does is act as a device for a filmic cut into this or that moment, or even to act as a way to elide over some famed incident, or ask silly questions that no ‘real’ person would, such as when he asks Chaplin why he did not ‘slow down’ when he was at the height of his fame.
However, despite those flaws, the film is well worth seeing, for Attenborough uses many old tricks (such as irises and edit wipes), and elicits some great performances, as mentioned. He also wisely ends the film by literally stealing the ending of Chaplin’s most underrated, and consistently hilarious, film, The Circus. But, the last few minutes before that veer into sap, a bit. Chaplin is not great, and is not a film that reveals as much of its subject as does Attenborough’s earlier Gandhi, but it is a good primer on the man for those wanting to explore his own films further. Happy hunting.