This week I finished reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charlie Chaplin. It’s a short bio, a great rags-to-riches story. Reminds us with storybook clarity of how money doesn’t buy happiness.
Chaplin and his brother, from a young age, took care of their mother, who was in and out of mental institutions, and when he came over to the United States, in either his late teens or early twenties, he worked endlessly on the stage (belonged to the same group as Stan Laurel), collected clippings outta newspapers whenever some critic mentioned his performance, and when he finally got his foot in the door with a small film studio called Keystone, and then another called Essenay, Chaplin applied himself like nobody else on the lot. Worked tirelessly. It was here that he invented his most iconic character, the Tramp. He adapted the character with each flick until it was perfect. A fully-realized entity that Chaplin could inhabit and abandon between one footstep and the next.
Eventually he negotiated himself into some directing privileges and in one year, I forget which, he wrote, directed, and starred in about thirty features.
But as Chaplin’s celebrity began to rise and rise, as he became the very first internationally celebrated movie star, so did his arrogance ascend with his name, his entitlement, and from one production to the next, decade to decade, he became increasingly difficult to deal with. Abusive. He became a more scathing womanizer, increasingly prone to self pity, he was tyrannical on the set and commanding of all attention everywhere he went, allergic to criticism, neurotic, selfish, judgmental.
He became a nightmare.
And in reading the chapters about his final decade, exiled in Switzerland because McCarthyites had considered him an unsavory character in the 1950s (Chaplin was in London for the premiere of Limelight when he learned that his passport was suspended, and that he couldn’t go back to the US, and, as a native, he would have been cool to hangout–but England had an extradition deal with the US, so he didn’t linger, cuz he’d done some shady sexual shit and was afraid US officials, who’d long had a hardon about his being a Communist, would find some way of bringing him back and locking him up on grounds of indecency or some shit), we see that Chaplin’s life became a kind of tragedy, toward the end, about a man who only ever wanted to be loved but, in achieving that love from the world at large, became increasingly unlovable in person. All of his worst characteristics–during this exiled, isolated senescence–magnified tenfold, way worse than they’d been at the peak of his success, which meant that people were doubly inclined to keep the fuck away because, now, as an ailing older man, Chaplin didn’t have any of the redeeming qualities that had inclined people to tolerate his grueling behavior in the past. His later movies were ponderous and indulgent and saccharine and predictable. Actors stopped according him the reverence and boundless patience he’d once commanded. His 1920s or, at best, his 1940s sensibility didn’t work anymore for audiences of the 1960s and ’70s.
It seemed Chaplin could no longer enjoy himself.
His wife, Oona, who was ceaselessly loyal and doting until his death on Christmas day 1977, took to drinking in private whenever he consigned her to the house. His children couldn’t stand to spend more than a few days or maybe a couple weeks at a time in his mansion.
He was phenomenally wealthy, and internationally famous, and he’d enjoyed a hard-earned highlife for the better part of his time on Earth.
And yet, there’s something tragic about Chaplin’s arc. The”artistic temperament” thing. It might could be that the perfectionism that created such great work, that made him such a star, was, from the beginning, doomed to be his undoing in old age, those twilight years when virtually no one is taken quite so seriously as they were in their middle age, 40s and 50s and 60s, when you’ve got achievements under your belt that you can rest on, and time enough ahead of you where, in the eyes of the world, those early projects don’t just attest to your earlier talents but also forecast achievements to come.
Maybe it’s a copout to say that he was alienating people because of his “artistic temperament.” Maybe it’s more like mental illness. Maybe a lot of it was simple cruelty and to say that you’re making other people uncomfortable for your art is bullshit.