A Star For Our Times

Andrew Lydon

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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Who is popular culture's most sophisticated gender bender, in comparison to whom the seventies and eighties pop music creations like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, Michael Jackson or even Annie Lennox are clumsy and crude? 

Who in one of his most 'personal' films has his character sleeping with an unhappy millionaire who would seem not to know him in the sober light of day? 

Who specialised in the portrayal of almost exclusively working class characters? He has often been seen as one of the screen’s 'Class Warriors'. 

Who at the same time, has us identify with someone of possibly a distinctly unpopular racial/cultural origin? 

And on top of all this, performs roles suited to a victim of handicap but without hardly anyone ever finding it demeaning to the handicapped or 'differently abled'. 

The point of all these questions is that this performer has never been properly appreciated -for such unique accomplishments in defying stereotyping - by the sort of left and feminist critics who hand out plaudits for being 'Politically Correct'. 

A mischievous point could be made of his growing up around the very site of the current Labour Party headquarters, but would be an unnecessary distraction. Our subject has probably received more support from more conventional audiences, as our hero has been a popular recipient of the traditional Gongs of the establishment. It is inconceivable that there will be anyone reading this who has never seen at least one of his films. 

Auteur? 

Our subject began as a performer in other people's films, but then like many contemporary stars went on to direct his own work. The more one understands cinema history the more one realises how many filmmakers proceed from a reverence for established narrative and dramatic traditions. 

One can see this during the period of the film pioneers, the comics Mack Sennet and Buster Keaton clearly inhabited the cinematic world of D.W.Griffiths. Decades later with, for example, Woody Allen we see this same reverence for the more diverse cinematic traditions of the intervening years. This suggests a lack of inventiveness, with Allen possibly due to his flaunted sense of inferiority, something clearly apparent in his more recent films. Few film artists can find any point of departure for questioning and challenging patriarchal stereotyped ways of seeing and understanding in the way our more 'modern' subject can. 
Our hero was reluctant to get drawn into the classical forms of Hollywood Cinema, and certainly did not go down the road of reverence for other people's styles. His own cinematic style would rarely be the model for any other filmmaker, as it is often described as uncinematic and even primitive.

Characterisations 

Like Jack Lemmon in Wilder's films Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and The Front Page our subject presents himself as a feminine man who plays the 'wife' role in an odd male couple. He is often teamed up with more adventurous men seemingly more suited to the 'outdoor life'. There is a relationship with a female in each of his films but the endings make such relationships doubtful. While not suggesting that these characterisations were in any way 'homosexual', one would at least have to accept there was something bisexual to them. 

Our subject is remembered for performances that ask us to identify with the sort of 'cripple' it would seem is difficult to present as other than a freak or spectacle. The characters he plays are some of the few that could be played by someone handicapped, especially from some form of malnutrition originated handicap. 

At the same time he adopts the silhouette of the Hasidic Jew familiar from the popular images of the ghetto. Dark locks beneath a dark hat and the coatee he wears are not that dissimilar. He makes us identify with the victims of the most deadly racism of our century. Our subject's characteristic 'looks' helped in portraying a victim of the Holocaust in one of the best known films on that subject... 

Perhaps enough has been said to give the game away, but continuing to take our bearings on the familiar from the novel angles might be more revealing than more straightforward reviews. 

Our hero does have a resemblance to a woman doing a 'male' impersonation. The grace and delicacy of many of his gestures for example only seem slightly effeminate or camp. However, he has an over domesticated tendency to be disgusted. When this happens he uses a stare of annoyance as his main form of self assertion. (Comic impressionists have often presented this as the most stereotypical form of protest available to women.) We should also note how the smile is girlish even when being used on women as at the end of a film he made with the word City in the title. 

His habitual style of trousers suggest and obscure the possibility that his characters have handicapped legs which, as already mentioned, may result from rickets or another form of malnutrition -hence a somewhat odd walk! 

Our subject's eyes are made prominent by the use of eye-liner and quite long curly hair adds to the suggestion of femininity. The dandy suggestions and the frequently balletic quality of our subject's movements underline the artifice. In this context the falseness of the 'moustache' combined with the otherwise hairless face even when playing someone near to a state of dereliction remind one of photographs of male impersonators of the English Music Hall, such as Vesta Tilly. Male impersonators have since regularly used the guise of our hero. 

We could also point out that the trousers already referred to and the tight jacket/coatee also suggest the big hips of the female torso. The weak shoulders suggested by this style of dress reinforce this effect, or maybe the suggestions of disability then offers another way of seeing these features. 

Narrative Roles 

In his pioneering film about parenting we see the hero become a combination mother/father of a deserted baby boy. In 'real life' the performer/director's relations with women had not really been happy and successful and his degree of consciousness about this problem was probably a very private matter in a public life. 

In a film which directly inspired Woody Allen's The Sleeper the character played by our hero wanders off screen with a female partner played by Paulette Goddard - but already domesticity has alluded them. It was only in some of his very first films that our hero's characters ended up with a woman -  Edna Purviance. But these were very much 'Exploitation movies' in which he had little chance to develop the quality of performance we have referred to. 

It is the performance and characterisation which is the distinctive feature about our auteur rather than any authorial vision. While auteur studies have tended to focus upon the view of the world presented by the film artist, for example Hitchcock's catholic anxiety ridden world, such an approach is not very worthwhile with our subject. He emphasises the nightmare qualities of our most important contemporary and enduring global revolution - urbanisation - which can be seen in the most general Hollywood production. Perhaps his main distinction was the large helpings of sentiment in all his dramas. 

Our subject was in the happy position to finance his films out of his own pocket for most of his career. This allowed him to escape the paternal control of the business corporations in which more traditional minds found a home. Indeed the reliance on established forms and norms is part of the economics and possibly the psychology of the normal business organisations of the industry. 

Our subject had a special anniversary in 1989, which involved many retrospectives, but none of his radicalism was properly appreciated. This was noticeably absent from the sort of left or feminist criticism that has bloomed in the last thirty years. Indeed, the New Statesman very ignorantly described our hero as 'archaic' in an editorial at the beginning of the season of retrospectives. 

If you haven't guessed yet the answer is here...

Charlie Chaplin A Star For All Time? Illustration by Kim Calver.



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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