I've been re-watching a lot of my favorite Cliff Robertson movies this week. I'm having a tough time accepting the fact that he's gone... I never saw any of his later films, so to me he was still a young, healthy, vital guy in his 20's or 30's. Now that he's gone, my only surviving classic movie crushes are Rod Taylor and Robert Redford (I guess I seem to have a thing for people who co-starred with Jane Fonda.)
But aside from being a handsome fellow with a voice that sends shivers up my spine, he was also an AMAZING, highly underrated actor. For proof, look no further than his role as the mentally challenged sweetheart Charly in the 1968 movie of the same name.
Charly is a full-grown man with the mental capacity of a child. But with the help of his night school teacher, played by Claire Bloom, he gets to participate in a trial operation to improve his capacity for learning. While the initial operation is a success, it has a huge side effect that Charly never saw coming.
The film itself is definitely a heartbreaker. But while the overarching storyline is sad, it's a few poignant scenes and Cliff Robertson's earnest portrayal of Charly that will make your eyes well up.
In the beginning, Charly never understands when he is the butt of a joke, because it's beyond his comprehension. When his co-workers fill his locker with bread dough, then gather around laughing when Charly can't figure out what's going on, he laughs too.. not understanding that they are laughing AT him, not with him. But after his surgery, when his intelligence begins to grow, he says, "I was wondering why the people who would never dream of laughing at a blind or a crippled man would laugh at a moron." His realization that his "friends" were actually making fun of him all these years is one of the saddest moments in the whole film. Sure, intelligence enables him to understand physics, chemistry and history.. but it also opens up a world of hurt that he never even knew existed.
Cliff Robertson does such an outstanding job of portraying Charly throughout all of his mental stages in the film. His progression from innocent childlike wonder to mature, adult understanding is so natural you hardly notice it's happening at first. Even his facial expressions and body movements reflect his current intellect. While I had a very hard time understanding how Geraldine Page was nominated for an Oscar in my last post, I'm not the least bit surprised that Cliff Robertson won best actor for this role.
You can get Charly on Amazon here, or it's also on youtube here. I'm also working on a video tribute to Cliff Robertson, so hopefully I'll have that up sometime this weekend.