Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Extraordinary Life of a Silent Film Icon

Today is a milestone anniversary in the story of Charlie Chaplin.

On this day in 1977, the silent movie icon died in Switzerland at the age of 88.

And 15 years later, on this day in 1992, a movie about his life (directed by Richard Attenborough) made its debut.

I couldn't say how old I was when I first saw a Charlie Chaplin movie. Not very old, I'm sure. I just know that I have always enjoyed his work.

Nor am I sure how long I have admired Richard Attenborough.

It probably began whenever I was first exposed to his work as an actor, but who knows which film that was? He was acting in movies long before I was born so it may have been in a movie that was shown on TV (i.e., "The Great Escape") or it may have been a movie I saw at the movie theater ("Doctor Dolittle").

I'm sure my first introduction to Attenborough was not through a movie he directed — that was probably "Gandhi," and I know I was aware of him long before that.

Attenborough is mostly retired now. He is, after all, 89 years old, and he hasn't participated in the production of a film since 2007. It was an increasingly rare occurrence at that time, and Attenborough's brother said last year that he probably won't be making any more movies.

That is, indeed, a shame. His skill as a director surely exceeded his talent as an actor, and "Chaplin," his biopic that was released 20 years ago today, is a fine example of that.

As I have written here before, I truly admired his biopic of Gandhi — but Gandhi's life was so publicly inspiring that it always seemed to me just about anyone could hit that softball out of the park.

Chaplin's life story was a lot more challenging — but, in its way, every bit as inspiring.

As I say, that life ended 35 years ago today. I can't say with any certainty that I remember what was said about the timing of the release of the movie about Chaplin's life, but I'm just about convinced that it wasn't coincidental.

I must say, though, that I found Robert Downey Jr.'s frenetic portrayal of Chaplin to be revealing in unexpected ways — not the least of which was the obvious, albeit unspoken, comparison of Downey to his subject.

For all his talent, Chaplin had a private sort of greatness, and I suppose the same could be said of Downey.

Lisa Kropiewnicki of AllRovi wrote that the movie was "a thoughtful mixture of melancholy and humor, juxtaposing Chaplin's private loneliness and loss with his professional comedic talents and fortitude."

That's probably an accurate assessment of both Downey and the man he portrayed. But Downey's downfall after "Chaplin" really is another story, isn't it?

I can't help reflecting on the irony, though.

Downey was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Chaplin, yet Chaplin was seldom recognized with an Oscar nomination during his life (although he was given an honorary Oscar five years before his death).

Chaplin was a "genius," said George Bernard Shaw, and he was the world's best–known movie star by the end of World War I.

Twenty–two years after Chaplin's death, he was named the 10th–greatest male star of all time by the American Film Institute

Downey's performance was a fitting tribute to Chaplin's remarkable life, warts and all.