Chaplin (1992): Attenborough Mediocre Biopic Starring Robert Downey Jr. in Oscar Nominated Turn

TriStar (Carolco Production)

“If you want to understand me,” Chaplin once said, “watch my movies.” I am sure that director Richard Attenborough has watched at least some of Chaplin’s movies in preparation for this biopic.  But, ultimately, he proves to be the wrong director for a movie about such an eccentric personality and genius.

Admittedly, Chaplin’s life on screen and off is too rich, dense, and complex to be turned into an accessible, two hour Hollywood biopic. But Attenborough’s careful, stately and tasty approach is at variance, to say the least, with the personality, sensibility, and lifestyle of its subject matter.

And so, Attenborough and his writer have taken the episodic, middle of the road (middlebrow) approach, highlighting (but seldom illuminating) selective incidents and events from the silent clown’s life.

Partly based on Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography, this formulaic biopic features an all-star cast:  Robert Downey Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane, and Chaplin’s real-life daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, who portrays his mentally ill mother.

Using the conventional structure of flashbacks, an elderly Chaplin discusses his autobiography with his editor (Anthony Hopkins), who urges him to be more emotionally honest with his memoirs. As a result, Chaplin embarks on a long journey through his poverty-stricken childhood, closest friendships, many marriages, merciless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), and ingenious invention of “The Little Tramp.”

Scenes from Chaplin’s seminal works, such as “The Gold Rush” (1925), “Modern Times” (1936), and “The Great Dictator” (1940) illustrate turning points in Chaplin’s prolific filmography.

Attenborough’s also explores—superficially–the circumstances surrounding Chaplin’s blacklisting and exile from America for two decades and his eventual return to receive an Honorary Oscar Award in 1972.

To be sure, Attenborough’s staging of some individual scenes is decent and proficient.  However, overall, as written and directed, this film fails to do justice to the disturbing, manic energy of Chaplin the artist and the man.  At the end of the film, Chaplin remains as enigmatic and unknowable as he was at its start.

 

Oscar Nominations: 3

Actor: Robert Downey Jr.

Art Direction: Stuart Craig, Chris Butler

Original Score: John Barry

Oscar awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winners in the above categories were: Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman,” “Howards End” for art direction, and Alan Menkin for the scoring of “Aladdin.”

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