Originally published Jan. 8, 1993.
Editor’s note: Oscar-winning British director and actor Richard Attenborough, who died Sunday at 90 in London, visited New Orleans in late 1992 to promote “Chaplin,” his biopic about silent screen star Charlie Chaplin. Advocate entertainment writer John Wirt interviewed Attenborough and attended a private lunch at Antoine’s with the director as well as “Chaplin” associate producer Diana Hawkins and actress Moira Kelly, a member of the movie’s all-star cast.
“Chaplin” was poorly received by critics and audiences, but some of Attenborough’s greatest fame would soon follow. In June 1993, he co-starred in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster, “Jurassic Park.”
A film bio of British-born silent screen genius Charlie Chaplin is a natural project for Sir Richard Attenborough.
The British director, producer and actor brought the Oscar-winning “Gandhi” to the screen in 1982. His other films include 1987’s drama about South African apartheid, “Cry Freedom,” and the 1972 Winston Churchill biopic, “Young Winston.”
During a visit to New Orleans last month to attend a benefit screening of Chaplin for the International Center for Communications Arts and Technology, Attenborough -- along with Chaplin’s associate producer, Diana Hawkins, and co-star, Moira Kelly — discussed the new film.
Chaplin features Robert Downey Jr. in the title role and an all-star ensemble cast including Dan Aykroyd, Geraldine Chaplin, Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Kline, Kevin Dunn, James Woods, Marisa Tomei, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller and Kelly, who serves double duty as Chaplin’s first and last love.
“I’m not very good at fiction,” the director explained of his fondness for non-fiction subjects. “I don’t read fiction, to my shame. But what I love is biography and history. I also love recollections of people who’ve changed our society, people who have affected the way we live and think. And I, literally for 50 years this month, have been in the movie business. So, I also love the movies.”
All of the above — biography, history and movies — Attenborough reasoned, spell Charlie Chaplin.
“Charlie is the movies,” Attenborough said. “Charlie, probably more than anybody else, made the cinema into the art form of this century. He said it’s no longer custard pies and Keystone Cop chases, it’s about real people in real circumstances.”
Making a Chaplin bio-pic was suggested to Attenborough by Hawkins, his long-time production associate. The late film giant and pioneer, she believed, was a subject the director could fully devote himself to.
“He (Attenborough) has to be very attached to his movies, because usually they’re not regular movie fare, and difficult to finance and mount,” Hawkins said. “But because he believes passionately in them, he does them. ‘Gandhi,’ for instance, took 20 years.”
Chaplin, Hawkins said, took four years to reach the screen.
Attenborough well remembers his first look at the Little Tramp. It was 1934, and the future director was 11 years old.
“My dad took me to London to show me, as he said, a genius,” Attenborough recalled. “We went to a now-defunct movie palace in Piccadilly Circus to see ‘The Gold Rush.’ And, although I had always wanted to be an actor, if there was a particular moment when I decided definitely that was what I wanted to do, it was while I watched that movie. I laughed so much I cried. And then I realized I was crying because Chaplin wanted me to cry. There was that magic of communication, which I found absolutely devastating.”
In the mid-’50s, Attenborough finally met the man who had become one of his film heroes in 1934. In the ’70s, the director developed a warm friendship with Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, in London. Attenborough also accepted one of the Chaplins’ daughters, Annie, as a script girl for his film “A Bridge Too Far.”
“I became friends with he and Oona, and my knowledge, although not intimate, was a very real knowledge,” Attenborough said.
Eventually, the friendship helped the filmmaker gain the much sought after film rights to Chaplin’s autobiography from the great clown’s widow. It helped, too, Attenborough added, that the late Mrs. Chaplin admired Gandhi.
“All that together made her think I would make an honest movie. She told me she wanted no part in scripting or casting or anything else. She wanted it to be absolutely mine, and real and objective and critical.”
Mrs. Chaplin also gave Attenborough access to films, photos, scripts, letters and diaries kept in the Chaplin home at Vevey, Switzerland.
“One of my great sadnesses, of course, is that she died a few weeks before we started shooting. But she was terribly anxious that the film not be sycophantic or a hagiography. She actually said it would be insulting to Charlie if we simply made an icon worship movie. Bless her, that’s why she made everything available.”
Attenborough hopes Chaplin will inspire viewers not familiar with Chaplin’s films to give them a chance.
“My hope is that whatever else the movie does, it brings people back into the knowledge of the history of movies. Without that you’re not in a critical position to understand. They (Chaplin’s films) are overly sentimental, slow and repetitive, but they have within them moments of blazing genius. Boy, they are the most wonderful, wonderful films, even if they are dated.”
In fact, Chaplin’s ability to inspire laughter and tears via his silent movies and few sound films is undimmed. The Little Tramp remains a figure of universal appeal, one that’s still funnier than the thousands of speaking screen comics who followed.
“Charlie is erroneously referred to as a comic, or a comedian,” Attenborough said. “He’s neither. He’s a clown. And, by tradition over the centuries, clowns were silent. One reason clowns were silent was that they appealed to everybody, regardless of age and language.
“Clowns also are not in any sense people with repartee. A clown must by definition have a somber, tragic side. And Chaplin knew that the moment this clown figure he had created, the tramp, spoke, his universality and persona would vanish.”
The casting of Chaplin, of course, was of paramount importance. Attenborough conducted lengthy interviews with more than 30 English and American actors. Seven actors received screen tests. Most of the American actors (many of them well known), the director said, “were 15 or 20 years too old. I had to have a boy in his 20s. Charlie was the biggest figure in the world before he was 30, you know.
“I confess on American territory that I would have liked an Englishman,” Attenborough added. “Charlie came from the East End of London. It would make total logic.”
But the plum part eventually fell to an American, then 26-year-old Robert Downey Jr.
“Robert, rather like Ben (Kingsley, star of ‘Gandhi’), lept out of the screen.”
Downey, Attenborough continued, met the role’s physical requirements and displayed “the fire and passion of invention within his being. Unless you could focus on his face and show that debate and intensity behind his eyes, the performance wouldn’t work.”
Attenborough has high praise for Downey, particularly because the actor captured the grace beyond Chaplin’s slapstick.
“That’s one of the extraordinary things about Robert, his balletic ability. Robert had to change his actual stance before he started on the re-creation of the physical things we’ve talked about. Robert normally stands all wrong. Charlie stands on the balls of his feet, as if there’s a string out of the top of his head. That achievement alone is remarkable for an actor. I think he’s quite brilliant.”