Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)

A Book Review Essay by Tanja Bresan.

I’ve been wondering about the immortality of the soul” –Geraldine Chaplin in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

How does one find independence in cinema when your own father is cinema immortalized? Steven Rybin’s new book Geraldine Chaplin: The Gift of Film Performance, published by Edinburgh University Press (2020), thoughtfully examines the immortality of a screen performer, and takes as its subject one of the most important actresses of the old and New Hollywood, a veteran of Spanish, French, and contemporary cinema. Geraldine was born Geraldine Leigh Chaplin in Santa Monica, California in 1944 to an acting, literati. and performing family of her father, Charles Chaplin, and his fourth and last wife, Oona O’Neill, herself the daughter of celebrated writer Eugene O’Neill. She made more than 160 movies in her long-lasting career and is still active. She embodies a true Parisienne: a cosmopolitan woman, an artist, a muse.

The book serves both as an analysis of her work with various directors and various performances, while drawing parallels to her father’s work and his major acting and directorial achievements in a cleverly fashioned juxtaposition of the two, showing the bridging and passing on the acting gift from father to daughter. The matter of gift, of something ethereal in her presence on screen, will follow the reader throughout each chapter. Rybin’s exceptional writing, detailed interpretation, and readings of the selected films take us through decades, continents, and cinemas, both old and new.

Rybin’s exceptional writing, detailed interpretation, and readings of the selected films take us through decades, continents, and cinemas, both old and new.

The Gift of Film Performance is divided into five chronological chapters, documenting her first onscreen performance in her father’s last American film Limelight (1952), up to the most significant of her recent acting parts. 

The first chapter focuses on her work in the sixties, from her breakout role in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) to Spain and the indication of her future twelve-years-long work and personal involvement with director Carlos Saura. Filmmakers in the 1960s almost always insisted on her already familiar historical presence, given her last name. If her father’s legacy is a promise of historical importance, Geraldine brought the promise of rediscovery to her acting. 

Meanwhile, her performance in front of a different kind of camera at the time, that of photographer Milton H. Greene, shows intelligence, individuality, and wit. Beautiful images that are presented in the book (one of them being on the book cover) of Geraldine dressed like her father with a cane and a hat or with the cigarette and a beret, exemplify the performative ability of her own, important for an actress at the beginning of a career but so often overshadowed by her father’s legacy.

The second chapter deals with her continuation and further collaborative work she did with Spanish director Carlos Saura, and their twelve films together. After finishing filming the Russian saga in Spain, she fell in love with the country and asked a member of the film crew if they know of any Spanish film directors that might be interested in working with her. The name proposed was Carlos Saura.

Geraldine brought the missing ingredient to directors work- cosmopolitanism:

Cosmopolitanism in term of performance, refers to the idea that the border-crossing actor recurrently recalibrate persona, gesture and movement in the context of national and social boundaries that are themselves perpetually shifting. (64)

The tendency in Spanish critical discourse was to give more credit to Saura for allowing Chaplin to grow and move pass the historical last name; however, she was the crucial liberating factor for the director as a person and as an artist. Her craft moves beyond the melodramatic plots and figures represented in times of the Franco regime and beyond the famous sueca: the beautiful foreign girl. Geraldine challenged the rooted traditional stereotypes by reacting, rather than subjecting her performance, to the repressive forces of the traditional nuclear family, overpowering military presence in the Spanish society and the strict rules within the Catholic Church, forces that are Saura’s directorial crux. This chapter offers in-depth analysis of her best collaborative work, such as Peppermint Frappé (1967), Cría cuervos (1976), Elisa, vida mia (1977), and Los ojos vendados (1978), to name a few.

The third chapter brings us back to where it all started, to America – Los Angeles; the “people’s republic” of Santa Monica, her place of birth; and also the mythological and mundane district known as Hollywood, even though it’s hard to pin down the home turf for an actress such as Geraldine. Here she worked with two interconnected directors: Robert Altman and his protégé Alan Rudolph. Rybin most accurately named this chapter “The Circus: Geraldine Chaplin in the cinemas of Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph.”

Working for Robert Altman does strike a resemblance to working in a round-the-clock circus. Being an ensemble director, his films, especially the ones where Chaplin made an appearance, are loud, chatty, and tragicomical. In films such as Nashville (1976) or A Wedding (1978), Geraldine became immersed in a less emotional and more ironic, witty, and entertaining field. As the author notes,

a viewer is free to laugh at Chaplin’s character (surrogate director of a wedding reception in A Wedding, a “narrator” in Nashville and performer in a theatrical production in Buffalo Bill.) All of this, of course, happens precisely because of Chaplin’s own performative ability, the improvisational skills she uses to make us laugh. (116)

Acting for Altman allowed for improvisation with the dialogue (Geraldine’s funny monologue on the carpark lot in Nashville: “O cars, are you trying to tell me something!”),while fleeting interactions and at times absurd gestures and occurrences do not distance us emotionally from her character because of her distinctive performative gift. She is free to explore, to use the humour and play with her own legacy. The character of Opal (Nashville) is largely based on Geraldine’s own life and what the screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury witnessed in Cannes: ten Opal-like figures chasing her with tape recorders and asking questions. Geraldine gets to play that same reporter and connect with each cast member in her own distinctive way. Rybin goes on to notice: “The signature achievement of any actor in a Robert Altman film is to make moments of performance individuality memorable in films known for their ensemble cast.” (124). Rita, Opal, and Annie Oakley do make the best of the mentioned achievement.

The three films (Welcome to L.A [1976], Remember My Name [1978], and The Moderns [1988]) she made with Alan Rudolph place Geraldine in the centre of attention, not backed by the huge and shifting ensemble. They are more of her own films, with other characters there in her support. Her most memorable role for Alan Rudolph is in Remember My Name from 1978. After working as a script writer on Buffalo Bill and the Indians and as a assistant director on Nashville, Alan wanted to work with Geraldine. In a written correspondence with Rybin, the writer/director said Geraldine was Emily before the film was even written. The audience is with her character throughout the entire film. In the way she moves in space, haunts the environment, and reveals her motivations and attentions, we are drawn into her world as it is the only one we know and only one we care about. 

By the end of the third chapter, Rybin gives space for the analysis of Geraldine’s role in the television adaptation of The House of Mirth from 1981, directed by Adrian Hall. She plays Lily Bart, a complex woman belonging to New York City’s high society, at the turn of the century, impoverished and dabbling in gambling (and the resulting debts) while pursuing the company of married men.

With Harvey Keitel in Welcome to LA: Ultimately the major gift is the way Geraldine understood her father’s art, the choices she made in her career, and the collaborations she challenged herself with.

Rybin, as any observant and knowledgeable cinephile, is able to detect the huge and sadly overlooked possibilities of her performance for a rather obscure telefilm (which, by all accounts, is hard to come across today) and bring to our attention the fact Geraldine created similarly strong and engaging characters as in films of Saura, Rudolph, and later, Jacques Rivette. Rybin shows how her performance moved beyond the expected to detail the gestures and expressions of Geraldine’s performance as Lily.

The fourth chapter deals with her French years and, notably, a very different style of work she did with two prominent French directors, Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais. Rivette’s stylized revenge drama Noroît from 1976 has Geraldine’s face in the centre of attention, with specific gestures and expressions, and “theatrical” in delivery. Her performance is playful and engaged in movements and specific mise-en-scène  and in what her character is able to achieve within the space it occupies. With Rivette, Geraldine is more of a central figure, while in Resnais films, she plays supporting characters. Time and duration is of essence in Resnais approach, therefore Geraldine again shows her performative ability to adjust to the pressure of time at work in his film, again opening new possibilities of acting. The characters in Resnais’ films, after all, are more mischievous and unsure of their performative actions.

“Modern Times” is the title of the last chapter of the book, and it taps into her later achievements, most notably her role in biopic Chaplin from 1992, where she played her grandmother Hannah Chaplin. Work with Pedro Almodovar brought her back to Spain, and her role as Katerina Bilova in Hable con ella (2002) pays a tribute to her long lasting career in Spanish cinema and her own presence, rather than evoking her father’s. The chapter also focuses on her work for various artists such as fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and Guy Maddin, (The Forbidden Room [2015]), the later being an advocate for the sort of surrealism and times of celluloid and patina of a cinema sadly lost, the cinema of her father, which brings us back to Limelight, for Geraldine a very beginning and almost an ending for the older Chaplin.

The detailed and expansive chapters make up for Rybin’s initial point of fascination which is how Geraldine deals and works with the inheritance and film memory and her own imagination.

The inescapable fact that (within) these films she is a living citation. She creatively embodies, in whatever role she plays, the traces of film history- the memory of her father’s creative imagination, as expressed, refigured, and ultimately made her own, through performances onscreen.” (17)

Done intelligently and knowledgeably, with much deserved attention to both artists and their different ways of operating within the field of performance, the book’s analysis more than succeeds in supporting the above thesis. To merge the diverse body of work of both daughter and father is a rather difficult task. The parallels drawn between both of their performances, how they manifested and were palpable or not, make up for a compelling reading. It is the work of a sensitive thinker/cinephile who always bears in mind the historical context in which these performances were made and what they represented.

Her rather brief appearance in A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) brings a bit of irony: “I’ve been wondering about the immortality of the soul” is a line she delivers as a prophecy, while dancing with Marlon Brando, gazing into distance and space. As Rybin emphasises, her performance and the delivery of the line is intelligence at play, as much from her father as from her. It’s a subtle play with the myth and a last radical move from the director-father.

The gift that Geraldine inherited or the one that was passed on to her is not the one of specific technical instructions. When asked by the young Chaplin what he thought about her performances, Charlie always told her: “You were the best part in the film!” Ultimately the major gift is the way Geraldine understood her father’s art, the choices she made in her career, and the collaborations she challenged herself with. Peter Von Bagh, in his essay Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, said Charles Chaplin concentrated the whole history on his own face. Geraldine Chaplin concentrated both her father’s and her own in those beautiful two birthmarks she hides under her eyes.

Tanja Bresan holds a masters degree in art and cultural studies from the University of Arts, Belgrade. Her writing on film had appeared in several online journals including Berlin Film Journal and IndieKino Berlin.

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