If Charles Chaplin‘s Modern Times is a poignantly graceful valediction to the silent cinema, The Great Dictator “an epic incident in the history of mankind,” and Monsieur Verdoux a unique polemic prophesying the imminent end of that history, then Limelight, too, has its own very special niche in the annals of film. It is the first in a short line of works that have come to be known as “old men’s films,” a very limited genre composed of the subjective summations of the masters of the medium, the pioneers of the cinema. A handful of the great cineastes did provide us with at least one film of distilled purity from their mature years, expressing their deepest feelings and commenting with considerable intimacy on their lives, careers, and values. Among the most notable of these films are John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Carl Th. Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Howard Hawks’s El Dorado (1967), and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971).
All of these works share certain characteristics; they are melancholic, nostalgic, and contemplative; they are austere in emotion, if not always in style; they are the assured work of mature artists; and they run the risk of being too personal, too intimate, to close to the bone. We should feel privileged to have these men confide in us, offering up their memories, confessions, and vulnerabilities—their realization and acceptance that, as the subtitle of Limelight suggests, “age must pass as youth enters.” The most stirring images from Limelight are the haunted close-ups of the elderly Calvero (Chaplin), peering through the camera’s lens into an empty theater, seeking his lost audience. It is as though the public has mimicked The Tramp at the end of The Circus, turning away and leaving him as he had left it: in mournful solitude.
Limelight, like The Circus, is an artfully tormented exercise in self-therapy, seized upon by Chaplin’s critics as self-pity, even solipsism. To reach this appraisal is to ignore the fact that Chaplin’s whole oeuvre was an uninterrupted flow of self-expression, personal testament, and autobiography. He, unlike any other filmmaker, had allowed his soul to stand naked before us. Chaplin’s Calvero may be too sentimental for some, but the compensation is substantial—perhaps the most intensely felt performance in the history of the medium. Limelight is Chaplin devoid of frills and facades, and, as such, it is quintessentially beautiful and true; late-period Matisse for the movies.
Having made his mark as one of the greatest silent film artists, Chaplin seemed now to distrust the silence of those films, and he became ever more insistent on imparting his philosophical wisdom. At times, Limelight teeters on the brink of becoming an essay or a lecture. This discursive quality is something it shares with the other valedictory films mentioned earlier. Such reflective pauses seem to me not to diminish Limelight but to enhance its value. As he did at the end of The Great Dictator, Chaplin steps out of character or, better still, beyond character, to offer us a nearly Brechtian commentary on those (especially himself) who strut and fret on his celluloid stage. The urgency inherent in envisioning his own death, embattled as he was on all sides, produced the declaration by Calvero: “Truth is all I have left.” Limelight is the truth as Chaplin saw it. One assumes that he generally subscribed to Calvero’s dictum that “time…always writes the perfect ending,” but Chaplin also could see no harm in adding a few pungent aphorisms of his own to help time along.
Limelight is not without virtues in a conventionally cinematic frame of reference. Although the film is only intermittently funny, the other performances are essentially the best in any of Chaplin’s sound films. The movie, like Chaplin’s life, is scattered with disappointments, but the ultimate thrust is toward romance and a zest for life. If Limelight, like the tribute to Calvero in the film, is not “the greatest event in theatrical history,” it is, at least, a uniquely self-revelatory and touchingly brave event in cinematic history. As his father-in-law, Eugene O’Neill, had made peace with his family demons in Long Day’s Journey into Night, so Charles Chaplin made moving and haunted art of his own accumulated spirits in Limelight.