Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, et al.

In September, I saw a double feature at the Castro.

The Kid starring Charlie Chaplin & Jackie Coogan; directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1921)
Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr.; with Moira Kelly, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane & Anthony Hopkins; directed by Richard Attenborough; (1992)

Speaking of Chaplin, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced their next event.  The Little Tramp at 100 will be on January 11, 2014 at the Castro.  2014 marks the centennial of Chaplin's first film.

I saw The Kid a few years ago.  I stand by what I wrote then.  The Kid is a nice enough film but in the Chaplin filmography, my favorite films would come later in his career.  Ironically, he would make his best silent films during the "talkies" era.

Chaplin is a film I remember from its initial release in 1992.  Much heralded at the time of its release, I had forgotten that Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Charlie Chaplin.  As I watched his performance (perhaps rewatched since my film log doesn't go back that far), I realized how much I enjoy his performance and that Downey is truly a movie star.

There is something about him which radiates on the screen.  It could be his acting abilities but he seems to be playing variations on the same role for the past several years - glib, self-assured, frequently intoxicated.  He's played this role many times but when I looked at his filmography I see some outstanding performances.  I've been thinking a lot of his performance in Less Than Zero and I am keen to see the film on the big screen again from the more jaded perspective of a 40something.  James Spader and Robert Downey together.  Those two actors always draw your attention to them and they have selected roles which play to their strengths over the years (Spader primarily on television).

Then I remember Downey in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his on screen chemistry with Val Kilmer or him as the killer in US Marshals and how he held his own on-screen with Tommy Lee Jones.  Remembering his start on Saturday Night Live, I recalled his comedic turns as the blackfaced actor Tropic Thunder. One of my guilty pleasures is enjoying his turn as Tony Stark in numerous films.  Can't say I was so taken with the Sherlock Holmes films as he seems to be channeling Stark in his performances.

Anyway, I was curious to see Downey in Chaplin.  It was a mixed bag.  First, it seems like everyone and their cousin had a role in this film.  In addition to the aforementioned actors, David Duchovny, Geraldine Chaplin, Dan Ackroyd, Marisa Tomei, Milla Jovovich, Penelope Ann Miller, Nancy Travis, James Woods and I'm sure I'm missing a few.  The number of characters was dizzying.  Although I recognize and had passing knowledge of Fairbanks and Paulette Goddards and even Mabel Normand, the film seemed to want to check all the boxes as opposed to tell a great story.

Chaplin's life was pretty interesting.  The root cause of his interest in underage women is a little vague except his true love was a teenage girl when he left for America.  We're also treated to Geraldine Chaplin playing her mentally unstable grandmother and wondering what the actress is thinking and feeling while portraying the woman who had such an influence on her father.

Director Richard Attenborough applies the Gandhi formula to Chaplin - bigger plus grander equals better.  Chaplin is clearly Attenborough's paean to Hollywood lore and it's bathed in the gentle light of an acolyte's camera.  Chaplin is cast as the victim of J. Edgar Hoover's wrath.  That's certainly true to a certain extent but Chaplin's behavior and failure to rein in his own actions played some role.  However, I don't want to debate Chaplin's moral character or the political overtones of his films.  Where Chaplin falls short is in the casting someone other than Charlie Chaplin in the lead role.

Downey does a fair job as Chaplin but he is noticeably lacking as the Little Tramp.  When Downey does the physical comedy of Chaplin on stage or reenacts his movie scenes, the magic is absent.  To be fair to Downey, I doubt anyone could duplicate Chaplin's screen presence as the Little Tramp.  It would be like trying to cast someone else as Tony Stark; they would come out worse in comparison to the original.  Maybe you could find an actor to play Robert Downey Jr. effectively but Downey's performance as Stark is so indelible that any actor would suffer in the comparison.

I won't go so far to say I didn't enjoy Chaplin.  It was kind of fun to see the early days of Hollywood.  Kevin Kline even does a game turn as Douglas Fairbanks.  Chaplin is one of those film that doesn't stand the test of time and I'm referring to the past 21 years.  Downey's competitors for the Academy Award for Best Actor that year were Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) and Denzel Washington (Malcolm X).

It seems clear to me that Eastwood should have won that year but in fact, Pacino won.  In hindsight, Pacino's performance looks like parody.  Along those same lines, Downey appears to be attempting to mimic Chaplin (the real man) as opposed to give Chaplin (the film character) his own motivations.  Downey doesn't appear comfortable in the role; he doesn't stamp the role as his own as he does in countless other films.  He is hamstrung by Chaplin's real actions and the Hollywood mythology which has developed around Chaplin and the early days of film.  It's difficult to play the complex Chaplin much less recreate his greatest scenes on film and if Downey couldn't do it, I wonder who can.

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