A Man Against a Mouse: Cliff Robertson in Charly (1968)


Two years after the first edition of her Disability in Films Blogathon, Robin from Pop Culture Reverie is back with a second edition of the event! This time, our mutual friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has joined her to co-host. In 2016, I explored physical disability with an article on Marlon Brando in The Men. This year, I’ll be writing about mental disability with an article on Charly, Ralph Nelson’s film based on Flowers for Algernon, written by Daniel Keyes. The film, released in 1968, stars Cliff Robertson in the role of Charly, Claire Bloom as Dr. Alice Kinnian Ph.D., Lilia Skala as Dr. Anna Strauss, and Leon Janney as Dr. Richard Nemur. The following article will focus on the character of Charly.


Charly Gordon is an intellectually disabled man whom, after working as a janitor in a bakery during the day, attends night school in hope to get smarter. His teacher, Dr. Kinnian, helps him read and write. She takes Charly to a clinic where he goes through a series of tests ran by Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur. One of them consists to race against Algernon, a laboratory mouse. Charly has to resolve a maze with his pencil while Algernon runs through a physical one. Charly is constantly beaten by the mouse, which frustrates him. But there’s a reason to this: Algernon has had a surgery to “make him smarter” and now, the doctors are ready to try it on the human body. Charly is to be the first candidate. After the surgery, Charly initially doesn’t seem smarter, but, after finally beating Algernon to the race, his intellectual progress is impressive. After having been fired from the bakery (due to a petition organized by his co-workers and supposed “friends”), Charly starts working at the bakery. However, he might now be intellectually brilliant, but, according to Dr. Strauss, he might not be emotionally stable. [SPOILER] We are devastated when we learn that the effects of the surgery are only temporary and seeing Charly slowly going back to the starting point. [END OF SPOILER]



For his portrayal of Charly, Cliff Robertson won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1969 Academy Awards Ceremony. Unfortunately, it appears that, two weeks after the ceremony, Time Magazine claimed the winning was based more on the promotion of the film than on actual talent. The fact that Robertson bate Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter still provokes some controversy to this day. Despite what Time said, Cliff was surely not bad in the role and, even if he had lost the award, a nomination would have been well justified.


Cliff Robertson had to go from a man with a low IQ to a man with an IQ superior to the average person. Obviously, his character is portrayed in different phases which motivates the actor to show an incredible versatility in a single film. His voice only had to change. Being initially sort of “childish” to thoughtful. Well, Cliff Robertson always had this particular way of talking, as if he was solving a mystery. Those who saw more than one of his films will know!


The viewers’ connection to the character moves from pity to amazement and finally to desolation. We hate to see Charly suffering, but we are happy to see him “progress”. Even if he’s just a “character” he takes us to an incredible journey that makes us think, not only about other people we might know with a similar condition but also about ourselves. Charly’s ambition is one that some of us might never have for the only reason that we don’t have to liberates ourselves from a intellectual oppression.


Actually, the most interesting thing about this film isn’t necessarily Charly himself but his connection with the external world. We witness his relationship with people eager to help him (the doctors) as much as his relationship with people torturing him and making fun of him (his colleagues at the bakery). I am not a specialist on intellectual disability, but I suspect that this is, unfortunately, a good reflection of what these people can go through in everyday life. Hopefully, from 1968 to 2018, people’s vision of mental illness might have changed and we might have better tools to understand it. For his story only, Daniel Keyes developed the ideas over 14 years.

After the surgery, Charly developes a loving relationship with Dr. Kinnian (this one doesn’t start well for Charly as he has difficulty to understand and approach this new emotional aspect). As much as the film is well put, this might be its major weakness. Not the storyline itself, but the way it is presented to us. We feel things are a bit precipitated and we are never too sure what is Kinnian’s real involvement in this. When she proposes to Charly, he, but also us, have difficulty not to think this is not done out of pity (as Charly is going back to his starting point). Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but we never really know. The good thing about this relationship, however, is that it helps Charly explore an aspect of life he was not really conscious of before the surgery. This also leads us to a big question: when Charly goes back to his initial mentally disabled state, does he have any recollection of his post-surgery stade. Is he now an intellectually disabled man but with a better background and tools to help him progress? Or is there also a total “amnesic” effect? These are just questions asked out of curiosity. And I won’t answer them because I’m not a “specialist” and really wouldn’t want to say any  nonsense!


When I watched this film for the first time, it was to see more of Cliff Robertson’s performances. Apart from the fact that I was pleased by it, the film also seduced me for being depicted in a “simple way”. It is a good example of New Hollywood films. The music by Ravi Shankar is also an important element and make the whole thing even more special. Apart from Cliff Robertson, the other actors do a good job. Claire Bloom and Robertson have a good chemistry. And finally, it is interesting to see Lilia Skala in a role much different from the one of Mother Maria in Lilies of the Fields (also directed by Nelson)!

If you haven’t seen Charly, I hope you’ll have a chance to. It is a good picture to make us understand the struggles of a man going through a “mental evolution”, and also a good way to see something more “different” produced by Hollywood.

Many thanks to Crystal and Robin for hosting! To read the other entries, please click here.

See you!

Cliff Robertson, also winner of a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Charly!

Ps: You might like to join my blogathon dedicated to Jean Simmons!

Also, if you are on Facebook and like Cliff Robertson, I invite you to join this group I created.