“But the truth is so boring!”
— Chaplin (1992)
In Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin, the shroud of mystique that permeated Chaplin’s imagination was lifted to reveal a fragile, sensitive soul. All his life, the man struggled to be more than that. More than a comic, more than an actor, more than a human being. He wanted ephemera in his fiber – to be an artist, a magician, immortalized in film.
In Charlie Chaplin’s own autobiography, storytelling exceeds truth, and he is not afraid of bending the facts or leaving out difficult details to create his own version of history. Some things are met with beautiful accuracies, bolstered by rich imagery, such as Chaplin’s impoverished childhood, which seems more Dickensian than actual Dickens. Yet other parts of his life are altered or idealized – either with purpose or inadvertently – like the memories of his mother, who struggled so much with her mental illnesses and caused much suffering to her two sons as a result. That is the kind of anguish Chaplin chooses to omit.
In his prose, he can be stylistically touching until it reaches a certain nerve of discomfort. “Her presence was like a bouquet of flowers,” he recalls of his mother in his youth, choosing to remember all the romance and none of the misery.
Even in his filmmaking, Chaplin seems to lack candor. Written in an age when filmmaking was become less and less transparent, with film schools popping up and revealing the technical precision of the craft, Chaplin refuses to reveal how he shot certain scenes or why he chooses certain angles. All that we know was that he was a perfectionist, willing to tear through thousands of feet of film for the perfect shot. He chooses not to talk of methods, claiming it would be “tantamount to a magician spoiling his own illusion.”
“Like everyone else I am what I am: an individual, unique and different, with a lineal history of ancestral promptings and urgings; a history of dreams, desires, and of special experiences, all of which I am the sum total.”
— Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography
It’s the unreliable narrator who makes the autobiography so compelling. He utilizes poetic license like an illusionist would with misdirection to dazzle and distract, before revealing the finished product: his life, his art, his filmography – a complete entity with none of the blood or sweat that came out of it. It may not be the most complete portrait of the artist (he does not mention Lita Grey, his second wife, at all), but in its personality it may possess the most negative capability of all creativity – according to Keats, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
All together, what we learn about Chaplin is his deep-seeded belief in the absolute romance of everything – even the tragedy, which he elevates to enchanted, fanciful drama – romance that never feels insincere or disingenuous. Because Chaplin was sensitive and intensely fragile and that made his magic all the more timeless.