CHAЯLY struck a chord with critics and audiences in 1968, adding its reversal-of-fortune pathos to a year flush with downer dramas. Directed & produced by Ralph Nelson, Stirling Silliphant’s manipulative script was based on Daniel Waring’s 1958 short story “Flowers For Algernon”. Waring turned it into a novel ten years later; by that time it had already been done on TV as “The Two Worlds Of Charlie Gordon”, starring Cliff Robertson as the ill-served hero. The actor’s dogged pursuit of the project paid off with the eventual big screen version: he walked away with a Best Actor Oscar. While it’s a likeable, more than competent performance, the win was likely more propelled by hard sell advertising that had it besting stronger competition. *
Today we would call ‘Charly Gordon’ (Robertson, 44) “intellectually disabled”; in the script he’s referred to as “retardate” by the doctors who perform a radical experimental surgical treatment on the amiable janitor. They change him from the butt of cruel jokes by the clods he works with at a bakery to a suave, cynical genius who wows and sternly lectures scientists, makes a lightning blitz of trendy lifestyles, and seduces his beautiful teacher ‘Alice Kinnian’ (Claire Bloom at her loveliest) just because he can. Then the small print is read…
Fanciful material that once held some charm seems rather shameless today. Like the writing, Robertson’s personable performance feels calculated, and the wishful romance angle with Bloom doesn’t stand much scrutiny. Nelson’s direction goes wildly astray when Charly reaches his zenith (rejection reaction = deep understanding through rebellion) with a jump into 60s absurdity almost on a par with the satire of Candy, going split screen bonkers as Charly/Cliff rips through phases as a hippie and a biker (heavy, man), complete with discotech flailing, pot toking and groupie groping, followed by the tres-convenient seduction of Bloom. Cue slo-motion romps and soft focus, all scored by Ravi Shankar.
Made for $2,225,000, Charly’s feel bad/feel good/feel bad again fantasy grossed $20,700,000, the 15th biggest take of the year. I saw it twice as a 13-year old, and liked it, but I also saw The Green Berets twice, and liked that, too: because I was thirteen. With Lilia Skala, Leon Janney, Ruth White, Dick Van Patten, Edward McNally, Barney Martin. 106 minutes.
* Sorry, Charly, but—in a year wracked with more serious upsets—Robertson’s sympathy Oscar more properly belonged to nominees Peter O’Toole (The Lion In Winter) or Ron Moody (Oliver!), or the un-nominated Steve McQueen (Bullitt). A combination of sentiment (from the voters) and pushiness (Robertson’s aggressive campaigning) paid off. The Academy has a thing for characters with disabilities. If somehow there could have been a tie-in with musicals and/or The Holocaust, Charly would have trip-wired every award except sound effects.
If the news in 1968 didn’t make you feel lousy enough, swoon to the gloom of Faces, The Detective, The Boston Strangler, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, The Night Of The Following Day, The Fixer, Rachel Rachel, Petulia, The Swimmer, The Sergeant and Targets. Then cheer yourself up with The Green Berets, Witchfinder General, Madigan, Rosemary’s Baby, Firecreek, The Killing Of Sister George, Shalako and Hell In The Pacific.