The biopic – screen biography – is surely the hardest of all genres to pull off successfully. Whether the subject is Malcolm X or Gandhi, Cole Porter or JFK, it seems impossible to do anything more, in a couple of hours, than pile up easy clichés and gross simplifications. All too often, a person’s extensive, complex, contradictory lfe-experience is compressed down to a ridiculous succession of vignettes.
Such, sadly, is the case with Richard Attenborough’s long-cherished Chaplin project, a pompous and evasive chronicle of one of cinema’s greatest clowns.
This appalling film is partly based on Charles Chaplin’s 1963 autobiography, but adds a fictitious literary editor (Anthony Hopkins as George Hayden) who probes the gaps in Chaplin’s official account – in order to reveal the Deeper Truth. Yet Attenborough’s version is full of its own distortions and fabrications.
Apart from being among cinema’s greatest geniuses, Charles Chaplin led an exemplary 20th century life. The twists and turns of his private relations intersected spectacularly with major currents in social history. There is rich material here for any number of biopics, if tackled with verve and an incisive point of view.
But Attenborough opts for the most familiar, least challenging interpretation of this life story. Chaplin is presented as a melancholic fellow who eternally pined for a first, lost love; as a tormented comic who longed to be a really serious artist; as a furious workaholic who alienated all his wives except the last; and as a performer who invented his greatest routines in instantaneous flashes of inspiration. A quick look at the documentation contained in Unknown Chaplin (1983) will thoroughly disprove that last assertion, at least.
The film lamely attempts to deal with the place of sex and politics in Chaplin’s life. His enormous libido (and particularly his longings for legally underage women) is portrayed as his Fatal Flaw – but you would imagine from this portrait that Chaplin never slept with a woman whom he didn’t immediately marry afterwards. And Attenborough boils down the comic’s political beliefs and affiliations to the single, pious phrase: “I’m not a communist, I’m a humanist”. O brother, where art thou?
Robert Downey Jr does a surprisingly good job in the lead role (especially in the straight dramatic scenes), but he can hardly encompass, in his mimicry, Chaplin’s extraordinary physical skills as a comedian. As a result, this miserable chronicle skimps on showing the genuine evidence of Chaplin’s true art. Brief clips are obligingly inserted and some famous routines are glancingly alluded to, but the full, supple, intricate logic of Chaplin’s physical gags is nowhere appreciated – let alone emulated.
To anyone unfamiliar with the breadth of Chaplin’s work, it might well seem that he graduated from simple vaudeville pratfalls to mawkish pathos and heavy-handed social comment. There’s a great deal missing from that pathetic précis of a career.
If you really want to discover the magic of Chaplin, skip this biopic and head straight for the source.
MORE Attenborough: Cry Freedom
© Adrian Martin February & August 1993