Archive for April, 2010


Make ‘Em Smile

Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin

Directed by Lord Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and featuring an all-star cast, Chaplin (1992), a good if unremarkable film, is worth a look because of Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated (and BAFTA-winning) lead performance. His Charlie Chaplin’s physicality, mannerisms, and voice are dead-on, both in and out of the Little Tramp character. In the Chaplin DVD’s special features, Richard Schickel, Time film critic, says that Downey’s performance has a “wistfulness” and “stunned” quality as he encounters people, places, and things (such as film) for the first time. I would go a step further and add that his performance is imbued with a childlike quality, which allows the character to be open and to endlessly create. Schickel also says that Downey’s performance is the film’s “saving grace.”

The idea of performance and the real human being underneath constantly informs Chaplin. The film opens with Downey as Chaplin removing his iconic Little Tramp makeup, as the black-and-white film stock subtly transforms into color, from film to life, from character to person, from artificiality to reality. The film is structured around an older Chaplin’s voiceovers and flashbacks as a (fictional) book editor (Anthony Hopkins) attempts to fill in gaps in the star’s autobiography. Until this editor entered the picture, Chaplin was able to control his own story. Now, he is forced to confront the unpleasant parts of his life, such as his propensity for underage girls and his mixed emotions about family, creativity, America, and fame.

Chaplin’s struggles with his personal demons parallels Downey’s own life at the time of the film’s shooting. Underneath Downey’s undisputed talent and professionalism lay a raging drug addiction, this would temporarily sidetrack his career a few years after Chaplin’s release. Downey has performed Chaplin’s song “Smile” about keeping up appearances through adversity, and the song emerges in the film as Chaplin returns to London for the first time since becoming world-famous. He has literally just learned that his first love, whom he met in London, has died. Now, he must put aside grief, smile, and give the waiting swarm of fans what they want.

How the film is made even showcases aspects of persona, performance, and surface artificiality, including the use of traditional silent-film techniques, such as wipes, irises, dissolves, slow-motion, and fast-motion to move the film along or to comment on the action. As in the silent era, Chaplin also uses long shots to spotlight Chaplin’s/Downey’s performance, especially in instances of slapstick. There are also scenes which explain the creative tricks that silent filmmakers used to get around limited resources, money, and technology. Use of these techniques makes the film into a mix of modern, accurate realism in its content and a self-conscious spectacle which brings attention to the act and artificiality of silent-era filmmaking. “Nothing quite like it, the feeling of film,” the older Chaplin points out to the book editor, emphasizing the Chaplin’s dependence of style as much as substance to tell its story. In the DVD special features, Lord Attenborough says that he regrets the “theatricality” (i.e., the use of silent-film technique and artificiality) in the film and that the film isn’t as “profound” as it might have been. Maybe not, but making silent-film technique a part of the film itself is Chaplin’s other “saving grace,” second only to Robert Downey Jr.