Chaplin says life with father wasn't fun and games

January 05, 1993|By Knight Ridder News Service

It must be very strange playing your own grandmother in a movie about your father.

Geraldine Chaplin, who is Charlie Chaplin's oldest child, portrays her grandmother, Hannah, in the film "Chaplin," which opens nationally Friday.

She says it was far more startling seeing Robert Downey Jr. as her father.

Chaplin was 55 when she was born, so she can't relate to Chaplin's early years. "As an older man he [Robert] looks exactly like my father," she says.

"It was very strange."

Her father talked occasionally about Hannah, who suffered bouts of insanity and spent much of her adult life in asylums.

And though there were movies in the Chaplin home, they were always Charlie's movies. "In fact, we were not allowed to see other films. We thought that other films didn't exist until my brother and I went to see 'Quo Vadis' and it was in color. And there were lions and Christians being eaten by lions and we thought this was really movies!

"There was no rule that we weren't allowed to see other movies, but the movies that were shown in our house were Charlie Chaplin movies. And one didn't talk of other comedians like Laurel and Hardy. I think he did it because he was very insecure and couldn't bear that someone else's film might be good."

Her father wanted his children to be doctors or lawyers or engineers, she recalls. "Unfortunately, poor man, eight children and no one went into anything he would have approved of."

Though he didn't condone her acting, he became an "unconditional fan" once she established herself, she says. "He didn't offer any advice, he'd just say, 'Just do what you're doing.' I wish he had been more guiding."

Charlie's half-brother, Sydney, was very funny in real life, Ms. Chaplin says. But her father was not. And he was quite strict, she says.

She thinks this sense of insecurity he suffered from exhibited itself after Chaplin directed Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in "The Countess of Hong Kong," probably one of the worst films in history. That was to be his comeback movie and was shot in England with American money.

"It got such lousy reviews. He always got bad reviews apparently. Always. But he wanted to work and couldn't work because they wouldn't insure him. He was too old. He was bitter."

It was difficult for Chaplin to understand when the applause died down, says Ms. Chaplin, an international actress probably better known on the other side of the Atlantic. "He'd had so much recognition and so much applause. He was like the Beatles, only more. And then in Switzerland it was calm and where was the applause?"

Chaplin moved to Switzerland after the U.S. refused to grant him a re-entry permit when he left to visit his native England.

Actually, controversy surrounded the Chaplin clan years before that. Chaplin's mother had three sons by three different fathers. She married only Charlie's father, who was an alcoholic. Chaplin himself had a penchant for nymphets and was involved in a scandalous paternity suit.

He had been married three times by the time he wed Ms. Chaplin's mother, Oona O'Neill, who was dramatist Eugene O'Neill's daughter. The elder O'Neill objected to the match. Oona was 18 and Chaplin was 54.

Ms. Chaplin says that a sister and a brother both objected to having the movie made about their father. "My sister who feels this way is a magician. She feels it's like showing how the trick is done."

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