Most Movie Directors Adore Chaplin: For Carlos Saura, It's Both Charlie and Geraldine
The movie star and the intellectual,” says Carlos Saura, with a wink through his granny glasses. “Who could ask for more?”
“Yeah,” shoots back Geraldine Chaplin. “But who’s which?”
She has a point. Both are stars of any movie set they’re working on—Saura is a prize-winning Spanish director (Cría! is the best-known of his films in the U.S.) and Chaplin an international actress (Doctor Zhivago, Nashville, currently A Wedding) who has confronted the pitfalls as well as the advantages of being Charlie’s daughter and the grandchild of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Both Saura, 46, and Chaplin, 34, are intense and intellectual, and the dinner table conversation in their Madrid apartment reflects it. After 12 years together (without benefit of marriage), they live quietly and are seldom apart—except when they’re working. Then, even if they’re making a film together—seven to date, including Cría! and most recently Los Ojos Vendados (“Blindfolded”)—they keep their distance until it’s over.
“I’m completely engrossed in my role,” says Chaplin, “and Carlos is trying to keep the film clear in his head while under pressure from everyone. When we were shooting in Segovia, we rented a big house and almost lived at opposite ends.”
It was a movie that brought them together. Chaplin was in Spain for her first big break—an $80,000 role in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago that she landed, she concedes, because of her promotable last name, not her acting. (“I was really terrible at the beginning,” she has said.) After it was wrapped, she recalls, “I had most of my possessions here, and didn’t particularly feel like going home.” A local journalist introduced her to Saura who was looking for a female lead for his next film, Peppermint Frappé. She got the part, but her relationship with Saura remained coolly professional until they took another Saura movie, The Hunt, to the 1966 Berlin Film Festival. There, she says, “We sort of got to know each other in the biblical sense.”
Saura was married with two sons, and Spanish law does not recognize divorce. But he and Chaplin moved in together. The arrangement worked fine until their son was born in 1974.
When Saura went to register the birth, he was reminded that the child’s first name, by law, must be that of a saint. They had already selected Shane, for Geraldine’s uncle, the late Shane O’Neill. A few days later Chaplin visited the same office and, because she was a foreigner, she was allowed to register him as Shane; but when she gave Saura as the family name she was turned down because she and Carlos weren’t married. (Saura had become legally separated by then.)
“So,” Geraldine recalls, “I registered him with a double first name. Shane Saura, sort of like José Antonio or Juan Luis.” And a last name? “My own, Chaplin, and because in Spain a person uses a second last name, his mother’s, I wrote down my mother’s last name. Simple, no?” All of which leaves Shane Saura Chaplin O’Neill with a lifetime of explaining to do. (His parents used to talk of marriage, but they both say now: “What’s the point?”)
Geraldine’s own upbringing was more traditional, and she and Saura often visited the Chaplin family mansion in Vevey, Switzerland. When Charlie died, she was shooting a film in Spain and did not go to Switzerland until after the funeral. She denied there was any family rift and today refuses to discuss the aftermath of his death or the bizarre theft of his body.
Her relationship with her famous father was always ambivalent. She was one of his 10 children and eldest of his eight by ex-actress Oona O’Neill. Sent off to a convent school at 10, she quit at 17 to study ballet, whereupon Charlie demanded she support herself. She was frequently in the gossip columns—”The moment I was born I was news,” she has said—with a succession of actors, dancers, photographers and bullfighters. But her role as Tonya in Zhivago opened up her career, eventually leading to a semiregular status in director Robert Altman’s stock company. She played a flaky BBC interviewer in Nashville, Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill and the Indians and a wedding consultant in his just-released new comedy. As she worked more steadily, Geraldine and her father seemed to grow closer.
Saura is no father figure but a painstaking movie artist who says of the elder Chaplin: “He is one of the few really great creators—in film, in modern art.” He and Geraldine see a lot of his parents, who live in Madrid too (his father is a retired civil servant). Saura, whose brother Antonio is one of Spain’s leading abstract painters, praises his parents for his broadminded upbringing: “They were both very un-Spanish in that way.”
Born in Aragón, the barren east-central region of Spain, Carlos graduated from the Official Cinema School and at 27 made his first movie. He was a veteran director when he met Geraldine, but, he says, “She allowed me to see women in a different, non-Spanish way. Now whenever I write a female lead, it’s conceived with Geraldine in mind.”
He’s had offers to work in Hollywood, but doubts if he ever will. His English is halting, for one thing. Still, the country intrigues him. As a onetime professional photographer and still an enthusiastic amateur, he confesses, “My dream is to ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle across America.” Altman, who has offered to produce a Saura film, did persuade him to supervise dubbing for the Spanish version of A Wedding.
Altman calls Geraldine “a remarkable actress who has as wide a range as anyone performing today. She’s like a racehorse you pick for its breeding.” But it’s a Saura movie she selects as her best work—his 1977 Elisa, Vida Mía (“Elisa, My Life”). She says, “I felt I gave a fully controlled performance. There was no place to do a number, no big scenes, it was all low-key.”
The same could be said of their relationship. Saura’s sons, Antonio, 18, and Carlos, 20, live with them in their rambling toy-strewn apartment in the most fashionable part of Madrid. Even at the recent San Sebastian film festival in the Basque country of northern Spain, they were among the most relaxed of the film people. Saura spent a lot of time photographing Chaplin, who spent a lot of time being interviewed. Carlos didn’t seem to mind being upstaged. “Me?” he explained with a smile, “I’m just her escort service.”