Tears of A Clown: Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (United Artists 1952)

cracked rear viewer

Charlie Chaplin was unquestionably one of the true geniuses of cinema. His iconic character ‘The Little Tramp’ has been entertaining audiences for over 100 years, enchanting both children and adults alike with his winning blend of humor and pathos. But by 1952, the 63-year-old Chaplin had been buffeted about by charges of immoral behavior and the taint of Communism during the HUAC years, and filmgoers were turning against him. It is at this juncture in his life and career he choose to make LIMELIGHT, a personal, reflective piece on the fickleness of fame, mortality, despair, and most prominently, hope. It could be considered Chaplin’s valedictory message to the medium he helped establish, even though there would be two more films yet to come.

“The story of a ballerina and a clown…” It’s 1914 London, and the once-great Music Hall clown Calvero arrives home from a drunken bender. Fumbling with the…

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A Movie A Day #211: Deja Vu (1985, directed by Anthony B. Richmond)

Damn, son.  I’ve seen some bad movies before but Deja Vu is something else altogether.

Around the mid-80s, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus decided to prove that Cannon Films was capable of doing more than making movies about Chuck Norris refighting the war in Vietnam.  Golan and Globus had already made money, now they wanted respect.  Teaming up with respected directors (Robert Altman directed an adaptation of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love for them) and casting actors who had slightly more range than Chuck Norris or Reb Brown, Cannon tried to go the prestige route.  Some of the Cannon’s quality movies actually were good movies.  The same year that Deja Vu came out, Cannon’s Runaway Train scored several Oscar nominations.  However, Deja Vu is a far more representative example of a Cannon prestige film.  It may have had higher production values than Missing in Action but it was still a Golan/Globus production through and through.

Nigel Terry (best known for playing King Arthur in John Boorman’s Excalibur) plays Michael, a screenwriter who views a documentary about a famous and tragic ballerina and is shocked to discover that she looks just like his actress fiancée.  (Both roles are played by Jaclyn Smith.)  Michael is even more shocked when it turns out that he looks exactly like the ballerina’s husband.  Convinced that his girlfriend is the reincarnation of the ballerina, Michael researches her life and murder.  Meanwhile, his fiancée starts to act strangely.

Deja Vu starts out a merely mediocre, slowly paced and miscast.  (There is no chemistry whatsoever between Nigel Terry and Jaclyn Smith.)  But then Shelley Winters shows up, playing a Russian psychic named Olga Nabokova. As soon as Winters started to deliver her lines in one of the least convincing Russian accents that I have ever heard, Deja Vu made the leap from being merely bad to being a cinematic trainwreck.  While Terry and Smith sleepwalk through their roles, Winters and, later, Claire Bloom (cast as the ballerina’s mother) chew up every piece of scenery that they can get their hands on.  Though the plot may be so predictable that it will cause viewers to have deja vu of their own, it must be said that, eventually, Deja Vu becomes so bad and misjudged that it is impossible to look away.  Golan and Globus may have had Oscars in their eyes when they decided to produce this prestige pic but instead, they won the laughter of anyone who comes across it on TV.


Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar-Winning Films: Charly (dir by Ralph Nelson)

It’s February and we all know what that means!  It’s Oscar month!  TCM is doing its 31 Days of Oscar and self-important film bloggers across the world are devoting themselves to reviewing the Oscar-winning films of the past.  That includes me because, as our longtime readers know, I love the Oscars and nobody is more self-important than me!

This month, I’m going to be devoting myself to reviewing films that were nominated for an Oscar.  Some of them won, some of them lost but all of them will forever be known as an Oscar nominee.  I am going to start things off by reviewing the 1968 tear-jerker Charly.

Charly_titleCharly opens with Charlie Gordon (Cliff Robertson) playing in a playground with a bunch of children.  Though Charlie appears to be middle-aged, it quickly becomes apparent that, in many ways, he’s still a child himself.  Charlie is mentally handicapped, an introverted man who works at a bakery where he’s frequently ridiculed and taken advantage of by his co-workers.

Charlie lives an isolated existence but he’s determined to better himself.  As the film begins, he’s been attending night school for two years and he had been taught to read and write by a sympathetic teacher named Alice (Claire Bloom). One night, Alice takes Charlie to the Nemur-Straus Clinic, a research lab run by the cold Dr. Nemur (Leon Janney) and the much more compassionate Dr. Straus (Lilia Skala).  Nemur and Straus think that they’ve discovered a surgical procedure that can increase human intelligence.  Though both doctors are initially reluctant, Alice convinces them to use Charlie as a test subject.

The surgery is a success and Charlie suddenly finds himself intelligent.  For the first time, he can understand a world that had previously only been a mystery to him.  Charlie finds himself falling in love with Alice but he also has to deal with the possibility that his newfound intelligence might only be temporary.  Even as the new Charlie starts to enjoy his life, he’s aware of the ghost of the old Charlie waiting behind every corner.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Charly as a film.  On the one hand, it’s a generally well-acted film and it doesn’t shy away from considering the conflict between science  and nature.  On the other hand, Ralph Nelson directs the film in such a glib and showy manner that Charly often feels like a rather shallow exploration of some very deep issues.  As such, you’re often left feeling as if both the film and the title character deserve better than what Nelson gives them.

The 60s were transitional decade for cinema in general.  While European filmmakers were proving that a movie could be a work of art, American directors found themselves struggling to keep up.  Far too often, this led to American directors copying the techniques of their European counterparts without necessarily understanding what made those techniques were so important in the first place.  Whereas directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Federico Fellini used showy cinematic techniques to comment on the act of watching the movie itself, many of the older American directors used those same techniques simply because they felt they had no other choice.  One of my favorite games, when watching a mainstream American film from the late 60s, is to spot the random psychedelic moment that, as out-of-place or unnecessary as it may feel, was obviously put into the film “for the kids.”

Charly is full of such moments and very few of them add anything to the film.  Ralph Nelson, a veteran of television who was previously nominated for an Oscar for directing the extremely straight forward Lilies of the Field, comes up with several  self-conscious moments that seem to be there “for the kids” but which don’t necessarily move the story forward.  The film is full of random slow motion, still shots, and split screens and, unfortunately, they serve to distract from a very simple and very effective story.

The film’s saving grace, however, comes in the form of Cliff Robertson.  If you had asked me, before I saw Charly, just who exactly Cliff Robertson was, I would have told you that he played Uncle Ben in the first Spider-Man films and Hugh  Hefner in a disturbing film called Star 80.  However, after seeing Charly, Cliff Robertson will always be the tragic Charlie Gordon to me.

The genius of Robertson’s performance is that he not only captures Charlie’s sweet nature and desire to better himself but he captures Charlie’s anger as well.  As Charlie becomes more intelligent, he also becomes more aware of just how poorly the world has treated him up until that point.  When he can suddenly spell his own name and articulate his own feelings, it’s not just an individual triumph but a triumph for everyone who has ever been told that they can’t do something or that they should just be happy with whatever they’ve been given in life.  Robertson makes Charlie Gordon into a very real and very sympathetic character and, as a result, you care about whether the result of the surgery are permanent or only temporary.  Robertson’s performance is so strong and honest that it transcends the showiness of Nelson’s direction.  Charly works because Cliff Robertson gives the film a heart.

Given the power of his performance, it’s not surprising to discover that Charly,  as both a film and a role, was very important to Cliff Robertson.  It was so important to him that he bought the rights to the film’s source material (the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes) because he wanted to make sure that Charlie Gordon would never be played by anyone but him.  For both his performance and his determination to get the film made, Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1968.

Charly may not be a perfect film but I’m not ashamed to say that I cried at the end of it.  Cliff Robertson’s heart-felt performance as Charlie Gordon transcends whatever other flaws the film may have.  If you haven’t seen Charly, you really should.