Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mini Review: "Charly", Cliff Robertson's Oscar Role

"Charly" (1968) is a thoughtful science-fiction film about a retarded man (the late Cliff Robertson) who undergoes a mysterious operation to make him intelligent. With the help of a group of scientists, a spunky laboratory mouse named Algernon, and a sympathetic teacher, Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom), Charly's intellect grows to genius proportions. He moves through an adolescent phase, falls in love with his teacher,  drops out for a period of "youthful" rebellion, and finally achieves the cynicism of a learned man, before discovering the sad truth about his condition. 

"Charly" is based on Daniel Keyes' seminal, still-popular novel "Flowers for Algernon".

Director Ralph Nelson combines elements that would not seem to work at all, and which fix the production firmly in the late 1960's: split-screen, psychedelic montage (with drug use), documentary-style scientific sequences with hand-held camera, a soft-focus romantic segment, a startling near-rape scene, and an incongruous score by Ravi Shankar. However, it comes together in an unlikely, sentimental whole.  The objective critic in me could find flaws, but I think the film is fascinating and watchable, and emotionally satisfying.  It is a love story, a 1960's mood piece. It is cinematic comfort-food-for-thought. 

Cliff Robertson (who passed away this week) played the role of Charly in a 1961 television drama called "The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon", and then bought the rights for the film as a vehicle for himself to play Charly. I have and always will connect Robertson with "Charly".  His Best Actor Oscar was mildly controversial, well-received by many, while others felt the Award was as much for the effort he made to get the film produced as for his portrayal. Today's audiences may find Robertson's early scenes a bit forced, but as his character matures into an intelligent and observant man, Robertson is especially strong. 

Late in the film, Charly is brought on stage to be scrutinized by a theater full of scientists, who regard Charly as little more than an experimental subject. As they question him, he stuns them to silence with his assesssment of "things as they are, and what they are becoming".  Charly also reveals his discovery of the tragic side-effect of his operation.   A portion of that dialogue is below.  It is Robertson's finest scene, and the film's.  "Charly" is one of my personal favorites.  I am grateful for Cliff Robertson, and the character he brought to life on screen.

Convention speaker #1: Mr. Gordon... how do you feel at the present moment, about your development?
Charly Gordon: Grateful, sir.
 Convention speaker #1: You are happy about it?
 Charly Gordon: Yes.
 Convention speaker #2: Why?
 Charly Gordon: Because it has allowed me to... see.
Convention speaker #3: To see what?

Charly Gordon: The world.
 Convention speaker #4: And what do you see in that world?
 Charly Gordon: Well... my eyes are new, doctor, I...
 Convention speaker #4: And what do they see, Mr. Gordon?

Charly Gordon: Things as they are.
 Convention speaker #4: And?
 Charly Gordon: And what they are becoming.
 Convention speaker #5: Can you give me an example Mr. Gordon?
 Charly Gordon: [quickly] No sir, you give me one.
 Convention speaker #5: Very well...
 Charly Gordon: Very well.

Convention speaker #5: Modern science.
 Charly Gordon: Rampant technology, conscience by computer.
 Convention speaker #1: Modern art.
 Charly Gordon: Dispassionate draftsmen.
 Convention speaker #4: Foreign policy.
 Charly Gordon: Brave new weapons.

 Convention speaker #1: Today's youth.
 Charly Gordon: Joyless, guideless.
 Convention speaker #6: Today's religion.
 Charly Gordon: Preachment by popularity polls.
 Convention speaker #3: Standard of living.
 Charly Gordon: A TV in every room.

 Convention speaker #4: Education.
 Charly Gordon: [agitated] A TV in every room.
[more laughter]

 Convention speaker #1: The world's future, Mr. Gordon.
 Charly Gordon: Brave new hates, brave new bombs, brave new wars.
 Convention speaker #7: The coming generation.
 Charly Gordon: Test-tube conception, laboratory birth, TV education, brave new dreams, brave new hates, brave new wars; a beautifully purposeless process of society suicide.
Charly Gordon: Any more questions?
Cliff Robertson, 1923-2011


  1. Because I'm vaguely petty like that I'll always resent Robertson just a little for winning that Oscar over Peter O'Toole. I read this book almost a decade a go (one in a list of books I was probably too young for) and I remember liking it, I don't recall the film as clearly.

  2. O'Toole was certainly deserving in "Lion in Winter"! I have a soft spot for the character of Charly, so I accept Robertson's recognition... Too bad there could not have been a tie in the Actor category that year too!

  3. Charly is a curio rather than an enduring piece of work and the elements which root it firmly to the 1960's really don't work in the films favour. The attitudes to mental health are equally stuck in the 60's.

    I actually found Charly a little condescending as a character, the over arch assumption that people with learning difficulties prefer it that way. In a way that's presenting a oppressive rigid class and socio-economic structure that must be retained.

  4. Well, Ben, attitudes do evolve, and so do films (sometimes!) While the film might not be made in the same way today, as a snapshot of the ideas of its time, it is instructive.

    I'm not sure I understand your reading of the film in terms of learning-challenged people preferring their lot. Charly tried to better himself against impossible odds (night school, bonding with his cruel friends at the bakery, taking his weekly bus tours--where he took notes!); and Charly's ultimate end was something he fought hard against before slipping back into disability.

    And then again, it is, after all, science-fiction...and, as a sympathetic character study and love story, it still works, for me.