Interview: Geraldine Chaplin, at 52nd Chicago International Film Festival

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CHICAGO – She is the oldest daughter of movie legend Charlie Chaplin, from his fourth marriage to Oona O’Neill, but she also was a spectacular actress in her own right. She is Geraldine Chaplin, and she was honored at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival, and was president on a film jury for the fest.

Chaplin was born in Santa Monica, California. When she was eight years old, her father and mother took her on a trip to Europe, and while there Charlie Chaplin was exiled through government order from America. The family then settled in Switzerland, and Geraldine eschewed college for dance, and studied in England and Paris. She reluctantly left that art, and turned to modeling. That is how director David Lean discovered her and cast her as Tonya in the classic “Doctor Zhivago” (1965).

Geraldine Chaplin on the Red Carpet at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Her career jumpstarted at that point, and she also was directed by her father a year later in “A Countess from Hong Kong” and co-starred – with Charlton Heston – in “The Hawaiians” in 1970. She also had a relationship with Spanish director Carlos Suara during that period, which began a 12 year collaboration. In 2006, she received a Gold Medal from the Spanish Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences for her contributions to Spanish film art.

In America, she became part of the ensemble troupe for director Altman, and appeared in “Nashville” (1975) and “A Wedding” (1978). Her work with independent director Alan Rudolph was also notable, including “The Moderns” (1988). She portrayed her grandmother Hannah (Charlie’s mother) in the film biography “Chaplin,” opposite Robert Downey Jr., and continues to work both here and overseas. interviewed Geraldine Chaplin briefly between her duties as Jury President for the International Feature Competition. The 52nd Chicago International Film Festival honored Chaplin with an event that took place on October 15th in the old Essanay Film Studios (now St. Augustine College) in Chicago, where her father was under contract from 1914 through 1916. It’s well known that your father spent some time in Chicago working for Essanay Studios. Did he ever speak to you about those times, or specifically his battle with George Spoor?

Geraldine Chaplin: No, but I read all about it. Bronco Billy Anderson [co-founder of Essanay] in a way discovered my father. So he and Spoor gambled on him…twelve hundred and fifty dollars a week in 1914, and a ten thousand dollar bonus. Once my father got to Chicago, Spoor disappeared. [laughs] What did you want to get right about portraying your father’s mother Hannah in the film biography, ‘Chaplin,’ given your closeness in family history and what you knew about her?

Chaplin: I just wanted to represent her well, because it was a very juicy part. Sir Richard Attenborough [the director] phoned me to say I had a part in the film. And I first thought, ‘what?’ Because my father liked very young girls and I was too old for that. [laughs] ‘Oh, you want me to play his mother. Great!’ I was so happy.

Geraldine Chaplin in ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ Directed by David Lean
Photo credit: Warner Home Video What anecdote summarizes your mother, Oona O’Neill?

Chaplin: Everything and her whole life. She was 18 when she married my father, and the studio thought she was just another one of his bimbos. But she took over everything, and she became the only person my father truly respected. He would run everything he’d written through her, she would actually correct him, and sometimes they’d have fights about it. But in the end, he’d do exactly what she suggested. She was a genius. There was a period in your mid career – around the 1970s and ‘80s – where you lamented your lack of hiring into American films. Why do you think that happened, and do those same reasons exist for the business today?

Chaplin: I think maybe the type of films I did, and do, are not done here? In my Europeon career, I was taking more risks. But it did come about in working here for Robert Altman – give me a break! [laughs] Lately, of course, the American film industry is not fond of wrinkles, and I have a bunch of those. But I get all my work because of them now. Because they do want the grannies, and I’ve done them all – the nice grannies, the killer grannies and the horrible grannies. Now I guess I’m heading to great-granny. [laughs]

The “Best of the Fest” continues through Thursday, October 27th, 2016. Click here for details. The 52nd Chicago International Film Festival has its final night on October 27th, 2016. Click here for film schedules, information and to purchase tickets. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

Laura McIntyre's picture

Geraldine is a great gal

I have seen interviews with Geraldine, and I find her intelligent, well spoken, beautiful, but most of all kind and classy. I truly think she’s a terrific lady. It can’t be easy coming from such a legacy, with the spotlight always on you, and Geraldine represents the Chaplin legacy so beautifully. I really like her. Her daughter ditto.

Interesting, that Charlie had such respect for Oona, for her literary and business sense, besides being his life mate. Leonard Cohen wrote “Dance Me To The End Of Love” and Charlie and Oona are the poster couple. Love ya Geraldine. You’re a terrific lady.

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