I watched Richard Attenborough's Chaplin starring Robert Downey, Jr. this weekend. It is a great film. Downey, Jr. illustrates perfectly why he was such a big name before his drug problems got in the way, and why he has had such a stunning comeback.
Charlie Chaplin's life was interesting and his work important culturally and historically. It is wonderful that there exists a biopic based on his own autobiography. However, as concerns the treatment of the character and real-life person Mabel Normand, Chaplin made huge mistakes.
In the film, Mabel Normand (played by Marisa Tomei) is treated like an obnoxious overbearing woman (how dare a woman demand what she wants, after all). No one likes her, her romantic partner Mack Sennet (played by Dan Aykroyd) complains about her behind her back. She's treated like a joke. And at the end when each character is given a brief overview as to what happened to them in reality, all that is said about Normand is that she was involved in scandals and never worked again.
Let me make something clear: Mabel Normand is a person of significance in film history. To treat a character rendition of her as a joke whose main accomplishments were scandal is an insult to film history, to women in general, and to women trying to make it in film today, not to mention an insult to Normand herself.
Normand was the first female director in Hollywood. She acted and directed with Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and was a comedienne in her own right. Film historians say her talent and significance match that of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, even if her name is not well-known. She was even involved in orchestrating the first time Chaplin played The Tramp character.
Chaplin is, of course, all about Charlie Chaplin so it's fine to highlight him. It's also fine to include Normand's tragic end, because it is what happened to her. However, it is not fine to treat her character like a joke. It is not fine to ignore her significance, even if the film is about somebody else.
Chaplin is over twenty years old, so there's nothing that can be done about that film specifically. But moving forward it is essential to treat historical women with respect. It's important to give historical women the limelight they deserve. And it is absolutely required that we give modern female directors more chances, more credit, and more significance.