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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’ on Showtime, a Fascinating Documentary Bio of a Wildly Complicated Icon

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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Real Charlie Chaplin’ on Showtime, a Fascinating Documentary Bio of a Wildly Complicated Icon

Showtime documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin is a rarity, a biography that does justice to its topic, covering it from mop of curls to duck-toed boots, in two hours. Peter Middleton and James Spinney direct, and Pearl Mackie narrates, this comprehensive examination of the screen star who was arguably the most famous man on Earth until Adolf Hitler came along – we’ll get to that, and it’s fascinating – and even then, you’d have to take infamy into consideration. A Chaplin bio is one heck of a challenging project to tackle, but this film argues early on that it’s up to the task of finding the “real” man beneath the bowler hat and toothbrush mustache; let’s see if that boast is justified.

The Gist: The film opens, quite cleverly, in Dec., 1916, with a cheeky “report” on all the Chaplin sightings across America. He was everywhere, from New York to California, the hat, the cane, the ‘stache, but which one was actually Chaplin? Perhaps the one who came in 20th place in a Chaplin lookalike contest, as one rumor went. Chaplinmania was in full swing, and admirers of his slapstick-comedy nickelodeon films expressed their appreciation by dressing like his famous Tramp character, who “has no name, no fixed address, no family, no set point in space or time,” Mackie narrates. And that’s precisely the genius of it: The Tramp was a universal figure, instantly recognizable, ripe for imitation, a reflection of everybody and nobody at exactly the same time, and, the film asserts, he was more famous than kings, queens, emperors and the like. (Just please don’t call the Tramp a “brand.”)

Chaplin was born in London in 1889, to a drunken father who ran off with another woman, and a mother who was soon institutionalized. He ended up in a children’s “workhouse,” which is just a slightly more acceptable word for “orphanage.” We hear a woman’s voice, and it’s Effie Wisdom, in a 1983 interview conducted when she was 92; she used to play in the London alleys and streets with Chaplin, who, she says, promised to never forget her. (To sit here in 2021 and listen to the voice of someone who knew Charlie Chaplin in the late 1800s is kind of astonishing.) We see her, too, but played by an actor in a nifty reenactment, lip-synching to cleaned-up audio.

Anyway. Chaplin eventually fell in with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, where he learned the basics of slapstick comedy, which, to the untrained eye, appears to be the art of falling down on purpose without killing yourself. The troupe toured the U.S., and he specifically was targeted by producers of moving pictures, an art that Chaplin thought was beneath him until he was offered a contract that was triple the salary of his vaudeville gig. We hear Chaplin’s voice from a 1966 Life Magazine interview, and he explains the origin of the Tramp: A desperate, last-minute throwing-together of disparate items from a wardrobe, including another actor’s boots and Fatty Arbuckle’s pants. The camera rolled, and he let rip. That was Feb., 1914, and if you do the quick math from the documentary’s opening scene, it took more than two but less than three years for him to become bigger than Jesus.

From here, the story is a rolling snowball gathering much from his mostly triumphant professional life and mostly turbulent personal life. They intersected in the films he wrote, directed, edited, produced, scored and starred in – The Kid, City Lights, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, et al – which frequently reflected the poverty and parental issues of his youth. There was also The Great Dictator, and yeah, I told you we’d get to that: Another massively famous person with an outlandish persona and toothbrush mustache rose to prominence, and the two of them shared many other parallels (they were born four days apart!), which Chaplin addressed in this film, the first to feature the voice of the previously silent Tramp.

The film also diligently shares the dark side of Chaplin: His near-OCD control of his directorial work; his multiple marriages to teenage women, some of whom emerged with stories of psychological abuse. The spotlight afforded him opportunities to share his politics, which eventually got him run out of the country – more of an indictment of J. Edgar Hoover’s cruel campaign to brand Chaplin a Communist during the Red Scare. (Extra credit question: Should he have “stayed in his lane”? Discuss.) We eventually get to home movies of a silver-haired Chaplin, filmed after he’d married and had children with his fourth wife, goofing on camera, performing, always performing. Those scenes are narrated by his kids, who describe him as a tyrant of the household; his daughter Jane says he was so “inaccessible,” for years she deeply yearned for a single opportunity to have a meaningful one-on-one conversation with him. What a sad happy man Chaplin was.

The-Real-Charlie-Chaplin
Photo: Showtime

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: A year ago, Showtime debuted Belushi, another documentary that foregoes the usual talking-heads approach to celeb bios. And here, we should note that a whole bunch of Chaplin’s films are streaming on HBO Max.

Performance Worth Watching: It sure seems silly to highlight someone over Charlie Chaplin in a movie about Charlie Chaplin, who might just be the greatest pure performer ever captured on film.

Memorable Dialogue: Mackie, on the Tramp: “He’s a nobody, and he belongs to everybody.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Once again, as ever, there is the art and there is the artist, and the points where they intersect and diverge are so, so fascinating. His films vouched for the downtrodden, criticized the powerful, sympathized with immigrants, showed average Americans being ground up in the gears of the machine (literally!). He wrote what he knew, to a degree. His films made slapstick an art – an art that’s all but lost now, yet seems utterly timeless when we see him fumble and waddle and pratfall and stumble.

The Real Charlie Chaplin profoundly illustrates the power of silence and speech in Chaplin’s life – how the former made him and the latter sank him. It juxtaposes the Tramp’s famous first spoken lines, a plea for peace and unity during World War II taken from the final scenes of The Great Dictator, with the uglier, dictatorial side of his personality, which dominated his life behind the camera, where he was a cruel womanizer, distant father and a director who hired and fired multiple actresses in the quest for the perfect scene in City Lights – a scene that took him weeks upon weeks upon weeks to shoot. The resulting film is among the greatest of all time; do the ends justify the means? Can we reconcile the man and his work? (I ask questions that don’t have easy answers, if they have answers at all – more like endless debates.)

Middleton and Spinney’s direction is shrewd and confident, transitioning seamlessly from playful to serious when necessary. Their approach is fearless, and the implications we’re left to wrestle with insist that Chaplin’s scandals carry on, in the stories of brilliant artists/troubled men of the current day. His monstrous behavior had little bearing on his career; the film suggests that for far too many, his life’s biggest scandal may have been when the Tramp first opened his mouth and spoke. What a world. Let’s hope it’s gotten better.

Our Call: STREAM IT. The Real Charlie Chaplin is a stellar primer for newcomers to the well-trod story of Chaplin, while acolytes may appreciate its restored archival audio and bits of candid home movies. The film also quietly showcases its relevance here in our own modern times.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.

Stream The Real Charlie Chaplin on Showtime

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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