08 November, 2012

Review: Chaplin A Life by Stephen Weissman

Despite it's flaws, I loved this book.

Charles Chaplin was a complex man. His life story is a compelling one. From a child among many in London's poorhouses to the single most famous man in the world, Charles Chaplin walked a unique road. No one (save perhaps his brothers) knew what it was like to be Chaplin. No one ever will.

Weissman undertakes what could easily have been a tedious conceit in his approach to biography. Chaplin is placed on the couch, his childhood explored and analyzed in the context of his work. While Weissman is at times repetitive, on the whole this offers a fresh look at the man inside the costume. The author's respect for Chaplin's talent is deep. He discusses both the early life of the family and the influences the boy carried into adulthood. From early stars of the London stage to lessons in the family home, Charles Chaplin was a born mimic who absorbed all then refashioned it into the new media. He was a genius in the true sense of the word. Viewed through Weissman's eyes, Chaplin's film works are recreated scenes from his life. Coogan flips his pancakes as The Kid in a facsimile of Chaplin's own home. The streets they walk are replicas of the streets Chaplin walked. He is a stand in for young Charles in multiple ways.

My complaint is that for all it's length, Weissman wraps up too soon. His book is not so much Chaplin, A Life as it is Chaplin, A Career. The author is interested only in Chaplin's childhood as it is explored in his films. (The book ends shortly after Chaplin leaves Keystone.) Weissman spends small amounts of time on Chaplin's life in exile and his later films, but his heart belongs to the pre war era. As a reader I enjoyed the author's insights into Chaplin's professional process and longed to see them applied to his private life as well. What drove Chaplin's possibly self destructive personal choices? How did his broken relationship with his parents alter the choices he made with his children? What did exile from multiple homelands mean to him? These, as well as his professional partnerships outside of the Keystone years, are passed over. As a starting point, Chaplin, A Life is well worth reading. It would be a shame, however, if a reader left the book thinking they'd experienced the sum of the man.


  1. Thanks for your praise. As to your major criticism:
    "My complaint is that for all it's length, Weissman wraps up too soon."

    You are absolutely right. I purposely ended the book at Keystone in order to avoid the strategic pitfall of a "card-carrying," psychoanalyst-"shrink" (yours truly) being obliged to discuss in depth the much more problematic side of Chaplin's life--his later years. I had/have plenty to say about those later years but unlike Charlie's early years--which focused on a young child heroically coping with adversity--his later years dealt with a young man coping with overnight worldwide celebrity and the pathological narcissism that almost inevitably accompanies that celebrity (Chaplin became the most famous person in the world for a 20 year period). Unfortunately, a much less heroic (and flattering) side of Chaplin came out during those years including 2 very problematic marriages (Mildred Harris & Lita Gray) plus a self-described period of compulsive promiscuity (Chaplin stated that he slept with 3,000 women).

    Now I did not avoid dealing with the psycho-sexual impact of narcissistic celebrity on his life out of prudishness on my part. The simple truth is that for a psychoanlyst-biographer to thoughtfully discuss (and attempt to clinically explain) Chaplin's celebrity hang-ups would have elicited an outcry (and condemnation)of my being a gossip-mongering "pathographer" rather than a thoughtful biographer. And so I chose to focus exclusively on his valid early childhood experiences and leave the messy stuff for someone else.

    By the way, now that CHAPLIN A LIFE has done so well (a "film book of the year"in London AND translated editions published in Russia, Brazil, Georgia, Germany, Israel and Portugal as well as English editions in the US and UK): I would happily do a second half of his life for a publisher who would give me an advance to do so. Unfortunately, my original editor/publisher (Dick Seaver) died AND his publishing company (ARCADE) went bankrupt.

    1. I certainly hope circumstances eventually permit you to revisit Chaplin. Given the even handed way you addressed the shortcomings of his parents (and Mack Sennett) I feel confident the book would be more exploratory than exploitative. Celebrity is tragedy in a prettier box. We could do with more lifting of that lid.