The Making of 'Chaplin' Director Richard Attenborough struggled to bring the film and its star to the screen

January 10, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It is, finally, the story of a little boy and a Little Tramp.

The Little Tramp, of course, was the cinema genius Charlie Chaplin's abiding creation, a banty little Everyguy always down on his luck, yet always touched with a grace and pluck that has seen no equal. He could, with the ease of a butterfly alighting on a daisy, break your heart with sadness or bust your butt with laughter in the glorious days before the movies learned to talk or blow up. With his floppy shoes and wisp of mustache and sad-sack wardrobe, he spoke more eloquently of the human condition than a library of books.

The little boy, really, was just a little boy, though now he is a very old man. But he recalls it as clearly as a dream from the morning.

It was way back in the Jurassic, he says. His father, an academic, had taken him out on the town. He was 11, possibly 12. They went into London, to the National Gallery, then to the Pantheon Theater. The movie was "The Gold Rush," starring, written by and directed by Charlie Chaplin.

That was the day Richard Attenborough's life changed.

And as a direct consequence of that day, Sir Richard finds himself, nearly 60 years later -- he is now 69 -- sitting in a New York hotel room with inquiring reporters gathered about, scooping up every word. He is, after all, the world-famous director of "Gandhi" and "Cry Freedom," and now, of course . . . "Chaplin."

He is plump and affable, bursting with British theatrical charm. No hint of doubt, no quiver of apprehension attends to his demeanor; he generates bonhomie like a stove throwing out heat. He's added a beard and shoulder-length white hair, giving him a jolly-old-St.-Nick look. His blue eyes flash with passion as he remembers being alone in the dark with Charlie that first night.

"I was bonkers," recalls Sir Richard. "This man made me laugh so much that tears ran down my face. Then the tears turned to tears of sadness. That was when I knew what I wanted to do."

Of course Sir Richard did it, appearing for many, many years as an actor (most notably in John Sturges' stirring "The Great Escape" as "The Big X," the escape planner) and then effortlessly segueing into his directing career.

But if "Chaplin" seems a logical finale to a career notable for its biographical films, the summing-up of all that has come before, if it seems inevitable, nothing could be further from the truth.

Indeed, the story of the making of "Chaplin" may be more impressive than the product itself: It's a tale of heroic effort from an aging man who absolutely would not permit this movie not to be made and not to be made without the star he had selected for the title role, a minor American actor named Robert Downey Jr.

The irony is that the movie has not been well-received, but Downey's remarkable performance, his mastery of the Little Tramp's repertoire of delicate physical moves, will probably make the young man a household name and almost certainly gain for him an Academy Award nomination. For Downey it was a great career move.

But all that was in the future when Sir Richard was trying desperately to get the $38 million project made in that labyrinth of betrayal and financial Realpolitik known as the American studio system.

"Well, who knows why," the ever affable, ever upbeat Sir Richard muses these many months later, "but I thought I had a deal with Universal and I thought everything was going along and we were spending money and building sets and then just at the last moment, it somehow disappeared."

Issue was Downey

The issue was apparently Downey, admittedly a long shot on which to gamble close to $40 million on a movie about a much-revered but hardly axiomatically recognizable genius, who, DTC even more admittedly, had his drawbacks.

"They never quite signed him," says Sir Richard, with a sigh. "Every hoop they put out for us, we jumped through. We don't know to this day what went on. . . . They just let it dangle. And they had $8 million in development money into it they would have lost if it weren't picked up."

The movie instead slid into the limbo of "turn-around," from which so many never return: that is, Universal put it on the block to any and all takers for the price of what had been put into it.

But happily enough, Carolco, an aggressive independent with a flair for high profile projects ("Total Recall," "Terminator 2") came to the rescue. Except that it was broke.

But somehow, on the strength of overseas guarantees or some such weird financial magic, Mario Kassar, the impresario of Carolco, was able to come up with most of the money.

Waiting for 'Terminator'

"Everybody else said no. But Mario raised the money in four days. We had to wait until 'Terminator 2' opened."

So just as Horton hatched the egg, so did "Terminator 2," full of death and violence, hatch "Chaplin," the story of a film genius who was chased from America when his politics became hazardous in the mean '50s.

And, for Sir Richard Attenborough, it's yet another biography.

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