27 August, 2012

Review: Chaplin by Richard Attenborough

The reading slump returned as I tried to slog my way through The Pirate Stalker (not it's real title). As a result, I find myself revisiting some older films. Watching Robert Downey Jr  play Chaplin, I'm struck by how The Tramp is as much a part of our culture as Uncle Sam or Mom's Apple Pie and yet Chaplin himself was a British immigrant exiled from America. He spent much of his life in Switzerland. Chaplin's numerous children and grandchildren live across the world with some choosing English as their third language. There is nothing American about the Chaplin dynasty but our sentimental embrace of a family we cast out. Which is a great segue to the film.

Chaplin the biopic is a mess. It's romanticized, sanitized and fawning. Hallmark would blush at it's naked sentimentality. There are serious inaccuracies and oversights. It's still a fantastic film due largely to the impeccable casting. The focus on RDJ's lead is understandable and well deserved. RDJ so fully inhabits The Tramp that Chaplin himself no longer looks properly like Chaplin. One expects him to resemble RDJ more. It is perhaps the best performance of an actual person ever filmed. It's that good. RDJ encompasses both the mannerisms of Chaplin and our perception of Chaplin into the perfect blend. (Until the last bits of the film. Chaplin in old age is painful. RDJ is hampered by excessive prosthetics and a section of script that's barely watchable.) Because RDJ is so good, the other actors tend to get overlooked.

Just as perfect is Dan Akroyd as Mack Sennett. He captures not only Sennett's seat of his pants opportunism, but also his Canadian-ness, if such a thing can be. He's a genial cutthroat. Paul Rhys is perfection playing Chaplin's brother (and manager) Sydney. Geraldine Chaplin turns in a perfectly heartbreaking interpretation of her own grandmother, frantically crumbling food in an effort to protect herself from a life that's already happened. Maria Pitillo's Mary Pickford shows the sharp mind inside America's Sweetheart and made me long for a Nick and Nora remake putting her opposite RDJ. The film is perfectly cast with actors disappearing into their roles. And yet.

In Attenborough's film Chaplin's affinity for young teens is romanticized. By casting Moira Kelly to play both Hetty Kelly and Oona O'Neill he does a disservice to both women. (The entire presentation of the Hetty Kelly story is problematic when compared to reality.) At it's heart, Chaplin has only two categories for women, mythically pure or deeply damaged. Only Paulette Goddard (wonderfully presented by Diane Lane) escapes this division. The film has Chaplin tricked by a deceitful first wife (Milla Jovovich is appropriately vacant as Mildred Harris). Urged to consider disposing of her pregnancy our fictional Chaplin manfully declares that in his world, you marry the girl. Actually, in Chaplin's world you married the underage girl or charges would be brought. In the film, the blame is on Mildred. So too is blame placed on second wife Lita Grey (the barely seen Deborah Moore). Attenborough prefers to gloss over Lita's falling into Chaplin's world at the age of 12 (or possibly younger) after he cast her as his love interest (the flirtatious angel) in The Kid. Although Grey's version of events has changed several times over the years she is consistent in saying Chaplin urged her to abort and resented their forced marriage. Chaplin's twin problems of avoiding birth control and seducing teens is swept to a mild allusion on the side. It conflicts with the film's narrative of a noble and wounded soul.

As frustrated as I was with the film and as desperately as I wanted to cut both it's last act and it's unneeded fictional narrator (Hopkins) the overall look at Chaplin's world was brilliant. RDJ inspired me to revisit Chaplin after decades spent avoiding his work in favor of lesser known stars. In the brilliance of RDJ (himself a flawed and human man) the brilliance of Charles Chaplin is restored. I went on a week long binge of his work, then his imitators (looking at you, Billy West!) then his contemporaries, only to find myself wishing there were more. Which is sort of like saying Harlequin doesn't publish enough titles.

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