“We had this extraordinary canvas of a life,” declares director Peter Middleton about the subject of the new documentary “The Real Charlie Chaplin.” The documentary, which premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival before airing on Showtime, examines the genius and the tragedy of the legendary filmmaker, a man whose genius was rivaled only by his personal demons. Watch our exclusive video interview with Middleton and co-director James Spinney above.
Many documentaries and films have already documented the life of Chaplin, which posed a unique challenge for the directors: was there anything about Chaplin’s life that hadn’t already been told? Eventually, they came across hours of recordings of Chaplin giving a rare interview to a journalist from Life Magazine. Those recordings, which they found in a garage in San Francisco, proved to be a significant jumping off point for the directors. “”Fortunately, with new digital techniques we were able to salvage signal from the noise and hear Chaplin’s voice,” explains Spinney. “This icon of silent cinema was sort of speaking to us from across the decades. So that felt like a real starting point, hearing Chaplin telling his story in his own words.”
The film portrays Chaplin as a complicated genius, as someone whose ability to communicate on film was in stark contrast to the insecure and often abusive behavior he displayed off screen. Spinney refers to Chaplin the man as more of a character whose personality hinged on the audience to whom he was playing. “Chaplin in many ways is quite an elusive character,” he explains. “It seems like the people who knew him best said that he had a kind of chameleonic aspect, that he would often reflect back to people whoever they wanted him to be.”
The film illustrates how Chaplin’s singular legacy hinges on the time period in which he found his greatest success. The directors do not shy away from reports of Chaplin’s abusive behavior towards his wives or his predilection for younger and sometimes underage girls. Middleton describes how Chaplin as able to use his cinematic persona to hide the darker portions of his life. “There’s no doubt that Chaplin was able to hide behind that celebrity, which of course has a great kind of contemporary resonance with some of the ripples that have been going through Hollywood in recent years,” he says. “He was fortunate to have existed in that period where he was able to take that protection.”
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