Interview in Sao Paolo newspaper O Estado de São Paulo for the Brazilian edition of Chaplin A Life
Interviewer: Chaplin was hardly a simple or transparent man. Do you think Freud oversimplified him as an artist when he wrote that Chaplin always played himself as he was in his dismal youth?
Weissman:Of course, Chaplin’s genius could never be summed up in a single sentence (by Freud or anybody else). It’s true. Chaplin transformed his painful childhood memories into screenplays. But the way he accomplished this (again and again) is the subject for an entire book. Freud’s comment grossly over-simplified how creativity works. But out of fairness to Freud, that offhand remark was a casual observation in an unpublished letter. He never intended his statement to serve as a comprehensive psychoanalytic explanation of how Chaplin’s life and art were related. Chaplin A Life was written to address that relationship.
Interviewer:’Chaplin, a Life’ is not a complete biography. But why did you include no discussion of Chaplin’s partnership with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith in 1919?
Weissman:More than a thousand books had already been written about Charlie Chaplin’s movie career. My book focuses exclusively on the previously unexplored psychological connections between Charlie’s life and art. The formation of United Artists in 1919 (by Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith and Chaplin) simply wasn’t relevant to a psychoanalytic study of his films, except perhaps for the one-liner someone quipped when the four of them announced they were forming United Artists: “the lunatics have taken over the asylum.”
Interviewer: Chaplin rarely visited his mother and only rarely mentioned her to friends and colleagues. Why did she remain an almost fictionalized figure in his account of his early life?
Weissman:Although Charlie confided the painful story of his beautiful, young showgirl mother’s mental illness and what he called her “tragic promiscuity” to a few friends, he considered that information private. When he published his autobiography (1964), Chaplin wanted to commemorate her memory with dignity. He knew the medical cause of her mental illness. But he remained tightlipped about the story of her syphilis and how she contracted it. Preferring to portray her as a martyred heroine, he only discussed the very real contributory role that severe starvation, malnutrition and poverty had also played in driving her mad.
Interviewer: This book, written in a narrative form, is based on extensive research of Chaplin’s personal life. Why did you have so much interest in Chaplin’s life?
Weissman:Even today—somewhere in the favelas of Rio de Janiero, the barrios of Los Angeles, the slums of Mumbai and the shanty towns of Soweto—there are emotionally resilient children just like Charlie Chaplin. As a psychoanalyst I am moved and fascinated by the story of how a very small handful of unusually gifted “slum dog” children are somehow able to survive adversity, avoid victim hood and grow up to become high functioning, successfully achieving adults.. Raised in grinding Dickensian poverty in late 19th century London, Chaplin lost his mother to madness and his father to alcoholism. The small child occasionally slept on streets and was sometimes driven by hunger to search for food in garbage cans (like a “little tramp”). During one particularly harrowing 18-month ordeal in a charity orphanage, 7-year-old Charlie coped with his fear and loneliness by playacting (daily) in a make believe fashion that he already was “the greatest actor in the world.” I wrote this book in order to try and figure out how an extraordinarily imaginative child was eventually able to actualize that “let’s pretend” daydream when he became a grown man. Chaplin literally rose from slum urchin poverty to became the most famous human being in the entire world.
Or as one American reviewer of Chaplin A Life put it: “Chaplin was not just ‘big’, he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through the First World War. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, he stayed on the job. It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most.”
Interviewer: Can you imagine how could be Chaplin’s career if he had not had a poor childhood?
Weissman :I cannot imagine what he would have been like. He would not have been Chaplin.