Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chaplin (1992)

I watched Chaplin on DVD tonight, after my plans to see another movie in a theater went awry. I remember thinking on Oscar night in 1993 that Robert Downey, Jr. was robbed of what should have been his Oscar. After 15+ years, I still think so. It is a wonderful, almost eerie performance, although it is nearly spoiled by the makeup used to age him for the scenes at the end of his life: it is grotesque. Amazingly, Downey manages to transcend the prostheses and pancake and use his eyes to tell the story his face is too immobilized to tell. When he portrays the younger Chaplin, his body language and his facility with the physical mannerisms of both Chaplin and the Tramp are quite amazing. He also makes a gradual, subtle shift throughout the film from the accent of a British street urchin to the tones of a cultured gentleman from nowhere-in-particular living in Switzerland. He and the script let us see the thinking and practice that went into that shift, critical if he is to be taken seriously as an artist, but by letting us see the work behind his accent, offer a window on the relentless work that his art required.

I've loved Charlie Chaplin's films all my life, and this film does an artful job of showing us origins for many of the tropes so memorable in his performances, without making a big deal of it. The Tramp and his friends walk straight out of the streets of Edwardian London, where Chaplin was once himself a Kid. The film glosses over some of the darker aspects of his story, showing us a string of child brides but not looking too deeply into the matter, excusing that part of his story as a search for a lost love. It looks more closely at his political troubles, the xenophobic attitudes of Americans (we are if nothing else consistent) and the Red Scare of the 1950's. The writers portray Chaplin as a man who deeply loved the United States, but they never explain why he never applied for citizenship, even though they raise the question in a lawyer's speech.

The film's great strengths are Downey's performance and the way the film makes us look at the old films with new eyes. There are wonderful small performances from actors who have since become much better known to movie audiences: David Duchovny, Moira Kelley, Marisa Tomei, and a very young Milla Jovovich. Geraldine Chaplin gives a moving performance as Hannah Chaplin, her own grandmother. Kevin Klein is so much fun as Douglas Fairbanks that he makes me want to run out and find copies of all of Fairbanks' films.

Normally I don't notice film makeup, which leads me to think that when I notice it at all, something is terribly wrong. Not only is the aging makeup for Downey awkward and fake-looking, the makeup for many of the women were "off" for the period, as if the artists felt that a 1992 audience would simply not accept period-accurate maquillage. It is a lone sour note in an otherwise quite wonderful film, well worth putting on the Netflix queue.

Thumbs up!


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