29 August 2019 5620 Views

#TBT : CHAPLIN (1992). Downey’s Finest Pre Iron Man Hour. A Beautiful and Brilliant Biopic.

by James Murphy

Throwback Thursday: That One Time Iron Man shared a scene with Inspector Morse..


Seems to be JOHN THAW WEEK on Movie-Viral. And it’s a worthy subject matter. Sadly, Thaw died in 2002. It was like losing the nation’s surrogate onscreen Dad! Inspector Morse, especially, was a massive part of my life, growing up and I corresponded with the character’s creator, Colin Dexter, while I was a student at New College, Oxford. I also saw John Thaw on set of The Remorseful Day at The Randolph Hotel and had tea with the lovely Anna Wilson Jones (Anna was playing the villainess, I think?) between takes.

Had Thaw lived longer, one suspects he’d have thrived in more movie roles, breaking out of that ‘professional of the week’ factory floor of British television drama. He might have revisited and even gone beyond his occasional collaborations with Lord Richard Attenborough (also much missed). For a hint of that, see 1987’s Cry Freedom: Thaw won a BAFTA for the film, around the same time that he had started winning new fans for bringing Morse so brilliantly to television, too.


A few years back, I suggested Daniel Craig ought to play Inspector Morse in a movie. It’d work. Trust me! 

Earlier this week, I told everyone that an actor whose name sounds like ‘Tim Huddleston’ is set to reboot KAVANAGH QC for Marvel /Disney.

Today? We are reminded of that time when, genuinely, Thaw shared the screen with a Marvel hero. It’s a small moment or two but played, beautifully. Thaw is accompanied by ROBERT DOWNEY JUNIOR, playing the role that defined his career and distinguished his talent in the years before he played Tony Stark.


We are of course talking about CHAPLIN (1992). 


The movie charts the course of Charlie Chaplin’s career in the foundation of Hollywood as we think of the system, today. That eternal struggle to be both corporate player and creative spirit. It’s ‘there’ onscreen, throughout. We do get some painful insight to the process of ageing; a melancholic meditation on the march of mortality. There is a sense of loss, grief, missed opportunity, regret.

Accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful and sometimes playful score from John Barry, spanning Burlesque /music hall fun and silent movie slapstick..to the darker tones of mental anguish and McCarthyite witch-hunts. Hans Zimmer pulls a similar trick with his Sherlock Holmes scores (also starring our leading man..yep..him again..Downey; Holmes part 3 on its way soon from director, Dexter ‘Rocketman’ Fletcher, stepping in for Guy Ritchie, busied on Aladdin 2, no doubt?).

Downey of course would take on the paranoia with the ‘reds’ again in George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. That might be a coincidence. But there are few actors one can think of better suited to opposing regimes onscreen that appeared to repress creativity or individualism of expression. And he does it with real glee in Chaplin: notably animating bread rolls to display a bored contempt at the Dinner time posturings by J Edgar Hoover.

This is one of the biopics defining the later phase of Lord Richard Attenborough’s career. After Gandhi hit big, particularly, the genre became his specialism. Dickie (God rest his soul): luvvy, darling: single handed saviour of the British film industry in a pre ‘4 Weddings..’ era; he was adored and always will be.


Prone to emotional bouts of tears by his own admission, Attenborough’s work on Chaplin is distinctive because whilst it delves into the human heart, the movie’s sheer scope encompasses so many, epic events, that one never dwells too indulgently or painfully.


A perfect balance, neither sanitising nor shirking darker edges, whilst ensuring a measure of hope and fun. Just as Charlie would have intended!

There is arguably some meta-textual commentary going on, too. A kind of hermeneutic power; whereby a script has a life beyond the page or screen and implications that somehow react to the world in which it was created. I have mentioned ‘third way’ cinema before and the emergent optimism from what was assumed to be a defining mood of despondent darkness for the 1990s.

And here is a film that falls bang on at the end of 1992: a bad year, almost uniformly within then current affairs, yet distinctive within film, as I pointed out last week with Patriot Games. A kind of cathartic darkness management and damage limitation through cinema was at work. And yet? Hope was on the horizon and it’s fascinating to map the fusion of those tones in otherwise disparate products such as these. An important lesson, in today’s uncertain times.

There’s real grit here and trauma depicted. Charlie Chaplin loses his beloved mother to the eternal peril of mental illness; he is shunned by not just one but arguably two countries he adores and the passage of time attacks his being in almost personal fashion (the rise of the ‘talkie’; the greying of the hair and decline of his once vital party circuit friends).

But there is also no escaping the sheer joy on display here: adventure, discovery, risk, creative endeavour, ethical hedonism, romance, comedy and character building. There is an infectious sense of joy to the piece and one cannot help but feel carried away by that.

So, this is worth a watch as a kind of joint time capsule; depicting the Hollywood of Chaplin whilst equally recording the talents of the 1990s personnel in the same town.

Cast list includes:

  • John Thaw (Morse!); Dan Aykroyd; Marisa ‘Aunt May’ / ‘Only You’ ‘My Cousin Vinny’ Tomei;
  • Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks; Milla ‘Resident Evil’ Jovovich; Diane ‘MARTHA’ Lane;
  • Kevin ‘Transformers’ Dunn; Paul Rhys (brilliant, btw and nice: he’d would reunite with Thaw on Kavanagh QC); Nancy Travis; James Woods..and David ‘X Files’ Duchovny.
  • Geraldine Chaplin makes a touching appearance as Charlie’s troubled yet inspirational mother.
  • Anthony Hopkins (is it still ‘Sir’?? I forget) has great fun here. Playing a (fictionalised) amalgam of Chaplin’s biographers to connect the flashback narratives. Hopkins nonetheless makes this his own, just as he started to have some post Hannibal Lecter  commercial clout in Hollywood, leading ultimately to the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mask of Zorro. 


It’s a game in itself: spot the celeb cameo! And yet, for all the genuinely ensemble charm here? This IS Downey’s movie.

Many were considered for the titular /eponymous lead: Tom Cruise! John Sessions! But Downey was unbeatable, managing to be somehow funnier than the actual Charlie Chaplin, when recreating the comedy acts of the actual..Charlie Chaplin.

Grace, class, wit, vigour yet economy of movement and style: a masterclass in screen acting, which rightly won the young performer an Oscar nomination. I think he should have won, though it was probably just Al Pacino’s ‘time’ (for Scent of a Woman) and there was ample competition from Denzel (Malcolm X), too. I suspect an award for AVENGERS: ENDGAME (possibly as best supporting actor?) is on the cards. Meantime, it’s Downey’s Charlie Chaplin that represents his acting apotheosis/ zenith, creatively.

There are some glimpses of what would become Downey’s take on Tony Stark /Iron Man, here. Chaplin’s vanity, arrogance, hubris and wilful moral myopia are contrasted against his genuine desire to fight oppression through cinematic tools and simply enjoy the romantic passions of life with an eternally childlike and impish though, (prima facie), never truly malicious abandon. And our leading man captures ALL that; sometimes separately and other times, simultaneously, in one scene, throughout the many ages of one man. All the while somehow fostering character cohesion.

THAT is simply, genius and every bit as important in its cinematic legacy as any Marvel super-hero. Speaking of super-heroic legacies, do sign up for this enviro-initiative being championed by Downey now. 

An underrated gem, essential for all fans of Cinema, of history, the human condition, philosophy and yes, of Robert Downey Junior. Acquire via Download / A N Other media. I was entranced by the movie when I was a boy and inspired by watching an actor I admired, thriving on an unprecedented thespian challenge. Yes, I enjoyed SoapDish and Air America, too..but nothing beats CHAPLIN in Downey’s early work. It’s his signature role, second only to the great Tony Stark. 

Many thanks to the lovely lady hostess who reminded me of the charms of Chaplin over afternoon tea, last year. Chaplin and Stark would love you! A true privilege to have you as a much valued friend. 




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