Fifteen years later, Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin” remains the flawed biopic it always was — albeit one with a protean, and Oscar-nominated, lead performance from Robert Downey Jr. Extras make this DVD edition special, even though the three featurettes total under 20 minutes.
A dutiful, beautiful movie lensed by Sven Nykvist, “Chaplin” surveys iconic silent-film star Charlie Chaplin’s life from childhood to dotage with just about every important event, and film, in the star’s life crammed into its 135-minute running time. Besides the folly of packing such an exciting life into a single feature, biopic suffers from an awkward framing device — a fictional editor (Anthony Hopkins, wasted) visits the Little Tramp in forced, if comfortable, Swiss exile to seek clarification and coax memories for the star’s autobio.
In the featurette “Strolling Into the Sunset,” the now-aged Attenborough insists that not all of the film’s compromises were his. Beyond the Hopkins interpolation — “Either I agreed or there was no movie,” explains the helmer — there’s the pic’s conclusion, an elaborate honorary-Oscar sequence that Attenborough calls “an intrusion.” Touchingly, he says that “the film was never quite what I intended it to be,” adding, “It certainly wasn’t as profound a film as it might have been.”
Others, including Time magazine critic Richard Schickel and Chaplin’s son Michael, speak more positively, noting “Chaplin’s” veracity and non-worshipful tone. “Chaplin the Hero” assesses the great man’s fame and impact about as well as anything can in five minutes, with Attenborough stressing Chaplin’s universality, and Schickel comparing him to Mozart and Picasso. Scenes from Chaplin’s films help make the point.
But it all pales in value to the home-movie footage labeled “All at Sea,” taken by a young Alistair Cooke in 1933 aboard Chaplin’s newly christened yacht, Panacea. There, in the presence of Paulette Goddard — not yet the third Mrs. Chaplin — the star strikes poses imitating Janet Gaynor, Greta Garbo and the future Duke of Windsor.
Watching these images, it is impossible not to be drawn to Chaplin. But neither docu footage nor Attenborough’s loving homage rep a satisfying substitute for Chaplin’s own movies, readily available on DVD.