On DVD: Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition

Iron Man wasn't the movie that first turned me on to Robert Downey, Jr. and made him one of my few must-see actors. Tropic Thunder wasn't either. Nor was Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang or Wonder Boys, although both are among my favorite and most-watched movies partly because he so blows me away in them every time.

No, the film that made me -- and pretty much the rest of the movie-going public -- really sit up and forever take notice of Robert Downey, Jr. was Chaplin. This 1992 biopic, starring Downey as Charlie Chaplin, the world's first universally recognized and revered film star, was produced and directed by Richard Attenborough.

In one of the new bonus features on this DVD, released this week by Lionsgate, Attenborough tells us that the little-known Downey essentially saved the film from being strangled at birth: "As you may well imagine," he says, "making a biographical film is not the most easy subject to finance." You'd think that making a movie about one of the most famous and recognized men in history would be a no-brainer. But the studios balked. Who, they asked, could possibly play the role? "'You'll never find anybody to play him'," recounts the director who ten years earlier had made Gandhi.

"I tried all sorts of people, I mean half a dozen names, world-famous names, all of whom wanted to play Chaplin. ... But into the CAA offices came a madman one day, with spiky black hair, rushed into the room and said, 'My name's Robert Downey, you may not know me but I shall be more famous that you've ever been, ultimately, because I shall play Chaplin. You realize I'm going to play it, do you not?'"

Remarking on the brash young actor's "touch of genius," Attenborough marvels at Downey's dedication to honing and perfecting Chaplin's distinctive walk, speech, posture, and way of carrying himself both as Chaplin and as his alter ego, the iconic Little Tramp. It was Downey's "miraculous" results that sold the project to the studio. Says Attenborough, "And once having done a test, the money came straightaway. It really was because of Robert Downey."

The backers got their money's worth. Downey, who was only 26 when the film opened, truly is remarkable here. The part required him to not just recreate a soulful Chaplin's unique nimble, athletic physicality as well as the shadings of his troubled private life (an aspect Downey may well have identified with more than most); he also had to do it while being aged by decades throughout the narrative, ending with Chaplin as a wheelchair-bound octogenarian recluse at the 1972 Academy Awards, receiving a thunderous standing ovation from a contrite America that had treated him with heinous injustice during the witch-hunt era of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn).

Robert Downey Jr. in 'Chaplin', Lionsgate DVDThe outlines of Chaplin's story begin with his boyhood in the brutal poverty of London's slums. Actress Geraldine Chaplin plays her own grandmother in this segment, and then later when Charlie's mentally ill mother is brought over to live with her millionaire son in California. The young and ambitious Chaplin, fresh off a U.S. tour as a star comic performer on Fred Karno's vaudeville circuit, takes a steam train west to Los Angeles to join the newborn movie-making business, at a time when the nascent metropolis was still mostly orange groves. There he knocks the gartered socks off impresario Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) and, in a fast rise to the top that's still astounding today, he soon becomes the world's first million-dollars-a-year performer, gets his own studio with complete creative control, and begins a life with as many ups and downs as the curves of the gorgeous young (often very young) women Chaplin seemed to require like nourishment.

With this role, Downey earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (He lost to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. With all respect to Pacino, who had already started to coast through performances, Downey should have taken home the statue that night.) Downey did win that year's BAFTA Award for Best Actor.

There's plenty else to recommend Chaplin too, such as Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks (the swashbuckling silent-era movie star who must have been thought up by God just so Kline could play him), Penelope Ann Miller as Chaplin's longtime leading lady Edna Purviance, Moira Kelly slyly cast twice as the great love of Chaplin's life, and Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, the best of Chaplin's several Hollywood wives and/or lovers. Look for David Duchovny as Chaplin's cameraman. John Barry's wistful, somber score was also nominated for an Academy Award, as was the art direction. The cinematography is rich and evocative, as you'd expect from Sven Nykvist, who worked with the great Ingmar Bergman on more than 20 projects.

An otherwise elegant and first-rate production is deflated somewhat by a script that lacks a sustained dramatic thrust as it takes us from event to event throughout Chaplin's life. Its three credited writers included William Goldman, and it was based on Chaplin's autobiography and the definitive biography by David Robinson. Attenborough's original cut was nearly four hours long, and this final trimmed-down version skates us through the outlines of Chaplin's personal and professional travails with a Cliff's Notes level of compression and ellipses that, frankly, couldn't be helped unless we're talking about a 20-hour miniseries by Ken Burns. On the DVD, Attenborough is candid about the lax narrative and the studio input that didn't much help, including the eleventh-hour addition of a framing device featuring Anthony Hopkins as an editor interviewing the aged Chaplin about his autobiography, cue flashback. In fact, Attenborough tells us that he'd like to make the film again. Downey would still be a natural for the role.

Robert Downey Jr. and Moira Kelly in 'Chaplin', Lionsgate DVDFor me -- a lifelong fan of the real Chaplin who has written extensively about the man and his movies -- what's strong about Chaplin counterbalances what's wrong with it. And its greatest strength is Robert Downey, Jr. He delivers one of the finest performances of the '90s, and after several viewings I still understand how Mack Sennett felt when he had his socks knocked off.

You can't fault Lionsgate for rushing out a "15th Anniversary" edition to ride Downey's Iron Man wave, even if the 15th anniversary of Chaplin's wide general release was back in January. No matter. The newly remastered transfer (1.78:1, enhanced for 16x9 widescreen) looks and sounds fine even if it hasn't received a pristine anniversary polish.

Unfortunately, we don't get a commentary track from Downey and Attenborough, or the director's longer original cut. Still, this edition's three brief new featurettes are worthwhile. Although the longest one stretches only seven minutes, together they do a welcome job of telling us about the production as well as reminding us why Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, why the Tramp is such a universal pop-culture icon, and why Chaplin remains a worthy subject now. Clips from his movies punctuate interview material from Attenborough, critic Richard Schickel (of Time Magazine and the director of Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin), biographer David Robinson, and Charlie's son Michael.

A fourth extra, "All at Sea," is a two-minute home movie shot in 1933 aboard Chaplin's boat off the coast of Catalina, with Paulette Goddard plus a young student and fellow Englishman, Alistair Cooke, trading off holding the camera.