In Hollywood, there is no higher altar than the box office. But from time to time, with visions of Oscars in their eyes, studio executives green light movies with loftier aspirations. They range from hits including Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi to such acclaimed commercial flops as Reds—epics that rewrite history and mythologize men who have tried to change it. In the past two months, Hollywood has released three epic biographies, each rehabilitating a controversial figure from American history. The first was the passionate and polemical Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s monument to the progenitor of the Black Power movement. Then Hoffa, directed by Danny DeVito, enshrined a less likely martyr with a crudely reverential tribute. And now, veteran British director Sir Richard Attenborough exalts a hero from his own industry with Chaplin, an earnest homage to one of Hollywood’s founding fathers.
Attenborough’s one inspired stroke is the casting of Downey. A relatively unproven American actor, a Brat Pack alumnus who has appeared in a string of unremarkable movies, he seems an unlikely choice for such an imposing assignment. But he acquits himself superbly. In a portrayal that spans 64 years, he captures Chaplin’s agility as a performer, his emotional reserve and his artistic obsession.
The movie draws a Dickensian sketch of the actor’s childhood, and of his apprenticeship as a teen vaudevillian in a school of hard pratfalls.
When a producer tells me he has a prestige picture, I know we’re going to lose money.
—MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer
] All three movies are about men who rose from humble backgrounds to win fame, notoriety—and exile. Malcolm X was assassinated in February, 1965, after being expelled by the Nation of Islam. Teamster boss James R. Hoffa mysteriously vanished in 1975, most likely killed by his former Mafia collaborators. And Charlie Chaplin, like Hoffa, was unfairly branded as a Communist by Washington: the actor’s Hollywood career ended when the government barred him from the country in 1952.
But Malcolm X, Hoffa and Chaplin do more than restore the smeared reputations of their subjects. They sanitize them. Although Denzel Washington reincarnates Malcolm X with profound and authentic conviction, director Lee whitewashes his hero’s black nationalism by omitting his more abrasive outbursts of antiwhite invective. And despite an uncharacteristically controlled performance by Jack Nicholson, Hoffa kneecaps the facts and elevates a corrupt union bureaucrat to absurd heights.
Chaplin, too, offers an exceptionally strong lead performance, a career-making feat of acting by Robert Downey Jr. But in a slavish attempt to do Chaplin justice, Attenborough has directed a fiat, workmanlike epic that cries out for some of the audacity and wit that Chaplin brought to his own film-making. The director has tried to compress Chaplin’s extraordinary life into a 144-minute movie, from his London stage debut at 5 to his return from exile to receive a special Oscar at 83.
While on tour in the United States, he gets his first movie contract from Canadian-born comedy king Mack Sennett, drolly played by Canadian Dan Aykroyd. Chaplin is the world’s biggest star by 25, and a Hollywood mogul by 28.
Meanwhile, the movie trots out his romances with breathless efficiency. Chaplin went through four marriages, fathered 11 children and displayed a predilection for cradlerobbing that makes the Woody Allen affair seem tame. Casting Moira Kelly as both his first love, Hetty Kelly, and his last wife, Oona O’Neill, Attenborough bookends the story with a contrived symmetry, as if Chaplin spent the rest of his life trying to regain the lost innocence of his first love. The movie turns into a kind of romantic relay race, with a string of young actresses taking their turn as leading lady—Penelope Ann Miller, Marisa Tomei,
ment for their subjects. And none of the movies has huge box-office potential. Every major studio turned down the opportunity to make Chaplin, which Attenborough eventually financed with an independent producer. Lee fought a well-publicized feud with Warner Bros, over the funding of Malcolm X. Hoffa’s lamé script seems to have reached the screen without a hitch, but the project had Nicholson’s name attached to it. Hollywood has always been in the business of myth rather than realism. Chaplin, Hoffa and Malcolm X, however, all came to reject the myth of the American Dream. And by trying to mold them into Hollywood heroes, the Dream Factory may have lost touch with the renegade spirit that made them so uncontainable in the first place.
Nancy Travis, Milla Jovovich and Diane Lane. After a while, they blur into each other.
The film’s episodic narrative has some high points. Kevin Kline livens the mood with a flamboyant impersonation of Douglas Fairbanks. James Woods has the movie’s funniest scene as an oily lawyer who flays Chaplin in a paternity-suit hearing. And Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s daughter, plays a poignant scene as her own mentally ill grandmother.
Her presence also signals the Chaplin family’s approval of the film, which has the cautious tone of an authorized portrait. It is tasteful, respectful and, in the end, quite moving. But the film-makers themselves imply that there is more to Chaplin’s life than meets the screen. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks, which an aged Chaplin relates to a biographer from exile in Switzerland. The biographer, played by Anthony Hopkins, occasionally catches him glossing over the truth. It is as if Chaplin, ever obsessive, is still trying to haul his life into the editing room for revisions.
Chaplin, Malcolm X and Hoffa all show the strain of directors trying to justify epic treat-
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