“Classic(?)” Film Review: “Chaplin” reconsidered

What lingers in the memory about “Chaplin,” Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1992 Oscar-bait biography of “The Little Tramp,” Charlie Chaplin?

The decades haven’t erased the sense that “the longer it goes on, the worse it gets.”

Some of the casting is inspired, some desultory.

There’s entirely too little of the “making of the movies,” which would have put Robert Downey Jr.’s dazzling, rehearsed light-footed physical comedy gifts to their greatest use.

That points to the clumsy screenplay, three writers including the Great Script Doctor William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kind,” “Misery”) trying to wring something entertaining out of Chaplin’s infamous “My Autobiography,” a name-dropping, royalty-fawning and maudlin account of his “hard life and times.”

Ever read it? “Dull” and “what a drag” stand out.

And the most moving moment — pretty much the ONLY moving moment — is the film’s finale, which summons up the actual sentimental silent comedies of the Brit slapstick master turned pioneering cinema artist. Yes, Downey is there (as the elderly Chaplin), reacting with tears as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lauds The Master at the 1972 Oscars. But it’s the original film footage sampled, nimble and light on his feet, and succumbing to the tearful charms of “The Kid,” that gets you.

That leaves the door open to some sort of remake. A mini-series, something streamable, some sort of British/US co-production? That assumes of course that anybody remembers the “real” Chaplin and that there’s an audience for a more “working” Little Tramp than this sighing, sad, persecuted (by the FBI) and used by women (pre #MeToo) Chaplin film treatment.

Attenborough, whose Oscar winning epic “Gandhi” is aging quite well, spends too much screen time psychoanalyzing and explaining Chaplin’s fixation on “jailbait” aged young women.

Attenborough was always a filmmaker who flirted with mawkish. A movie with this big a cast, a star who was pre-rehab and screenwriters that thought having a composite character book editor (Anthony Hopkins) “interview” Chaplin about edits and elaborations needed on “My Autobiography” was a good idea for a framework was bound to get away from him.

I hope Goldman didn’t contribute that Hopkins and Downey bit, whispering through old old age makeup, reciting tepid dialogue. Because it’s bloody awful.

“Well, it’s your autobiography Charlie. And as your editor I have to tell you that parts of the manuscript are pretty vague, to say the least. I mean for instance, your mother. Now when did she first lose control? We need to know those facts.”

Casting Geraldine Chaplin, the Great Man’s actual daughter, as his bound-for-the-madhouse mother didn’t pay the sentimental dividends it might have.

Presenting the winsome Moira Kelly as both Chaplin’s first (English showgirl) love, and as Oona O’Neill, the final Mrs. Chaplin, doesn’t work. A lot of the female roles are shortchanged, although Marisa Tomei (as early co-star and director Mabel Normand) and Penelope Ann Miller (as Chaplin “discovery” Edna Purviance) make good impressions.

Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard? She practically walks off with the picture.

As does Kevin Kline, dashing, handsome and well-matched with Downey as Chaplin’s physical comedy equal — in action films — as the great Douglas Fairbanks.

The reason I re-watched this was recalling associating this overlong yet “not nearly enough of the good stuff” biopic with the David Lynch “Dune” disaster — another overlong film that bit off too much and felt rushed in the process.

All these actors, all this glorious period detail, recreating the English music hall era, the Wild West just after it turned tame (Chaplin’s American stage tour of the 1910s) and Hollywood as it was being born, can feel wasted in “Chaplin.”

Zeroing in on Chaplin’s first week on movie sets, before the perfectionism (the second most tedious scenes in “Chaplin”) got the better of him, or his making of “City Lights” or “The Gold Rush” or the glorious skating short (a stunt spectacle) “The Rink” would have served its subject gloriously.

A remake would give the cinema’s greatest comic his due, provided we find a filmmaker or show-runner who takes Chaplin’s famous line in “Chaplin” to heart.

“If you want to understand me, watch my movies”


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for nudity and language

Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Diane Lane, Kevin Kline, Anthony Hopkins, John Thaw, Penelope Ann Miller, Dan Aykroyd, Moira Kelly, Paul Rhys, Marisa Tomei and Geraldine Chaplin

Credits: Directed by Richard Attenborough, script by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman. A Tristar release.

Running time: 2:23

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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