Oscar Politics: Chaplin–Legitimacy Restored in 1972

Charlie Chaplin, another Oscar victim due to political circumstances, was “pardoned” by the industry and restored to legitimacy with an Honorary Oscar in 1972.

In 1940, Chaplin had failed to win a single award for The Great Dictator, despite a brilliant performance. Politics had something to do with it: Chaplin was suspected of a leftist bent during World War II. He had declared that he was in favor of launching a second front in Europe to help the Russians. For some reason, the subjects of Modern Times, a satire on individual impotence in the technological age, and The Great Dictator, a satire of Hitler, made him a suspect.

At the end of this film, which shot before the United States joined the war, Chaplin stepped out of character and made an impassioned speech for freedom. There was also malicious gossip over Chaplin’s reluctance to apply for an American citizenship, which made him even more suspect. Public opinion turned against Chaplin after The Great Dictator, which was his last commercial American hit. Chaplin’s subsequent films, Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, were both failures.

Chaplin was plagued because he refused to go on record and state that he was uninterested in the politics of the Soviet Union, a country which he had never even visited. Threatened with a subpoena to testify before the HUAC, Chaplin decided to send a telegram: “I am not a Communist, neither have I ever joined any political party or organization in my life.” In 1952, when the Attorney General instructed the Immigration Authorities to deny Chaplin a reentry visa, he vowed never again to return to the United States. Chaplin’s friends found it ironic that he was suspected of leftist politics as in his personal lifestyle he represented what they described as “the height of wealthy conservatism.”

Twenty years after he left, Chaplin returned to the United States on a reconciliation tour. He was first honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where he received a standing ovation from his fans. It was just the beginning of what Chaplin described as “my renaissance.” The Academy’s Honorary Oscar was given “for the incalculable effect Chaplin has had on making motion pictures, the art form of this century.” Both of these gestures proved that the New Hollywood had finally taken over the old guard.

If you would like to know more about this issue, please read my book, All bout Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback 2003).