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Charly 1968.jpg
1968 theatrical release poster
Directed byRalph Nelson
Produced byRalph Nelson
Screenplay byStirling Silliphant
Based onFlowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
StarringCliff Robertson
Claire Bloom
Leon Janney
Lilia Skala
Dick Van Patten
Music byRavi Shankar
CinematographyArthur J. Ornitz
Edited byFredric Steinkamp
ABC Pictures
Robertson and Associates
Selmur Productions
Distributed byCinerama Releasing Corporation
Release date
June 28, 1968 (Berlin)
September 23, 1968 (New York City)[1]
Running time
106 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
Box office$8,500,000 (rentals)[3]

Charly (marketed and stylized as CHAЯLY) is a 1968 American drama film, directed and produced by Ralph Nelson, and written by Stirling Silliphant. It was based on Flowers for Algernon, a science fiction short story (1958) and subsequent novel (1966) by Daniel Keyes.

The film stars Cliff Robertson as Charly Gordon, an intellectually disabled adult who is selected by two doctors to undergo a surgical procedure that triples his IQ as it did for Algernon, a laboratory mouse who also underwent the same procedure; additional roles are played by Claire Bloom, Lilia Skala, Leon Janney, Dick Van Patten and Barney Martin. Robertson was reprising his previous portrayal of the same role in a 1961 television adaptation, "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon", an episode of the anthology series The United States Steel Hour.

The film received positive reviews, and was a success at the box office and, a generation later, in home media sales. Robertson was nominated for and won Best Actor at the Academy Awards.


Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson) is a mentally handicapped man with a strong desire to make himself smarter. For the past two years, he has attended night school in Boston, learning to read and write from Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom). However, his spelling and penmanship remain poor, and he is unable to spell his own name. He works as a janitor in a bakery, where his co-workers frequently amuse themselves at his expense, and enjoys playing with children at a playground when not at work.

Alice takes Charly to see Dr. Richard Nemur and Dr. Anna Straus, two researchers who have increased the intelligence of laboratory mice with a new surgical procedure and are now looking for a human test subject. To assess Charly's suitability as a candidate, they put him through a battery of aptitude tests and have him race against Algernon, a mouse who has had the procedure. Algernon physically runs through a maze while Charly uses a pencil to trace his way through a diagram of the same maze. Charly consistently loses the races, but is nevertheless given the experimental surgery.

After the surgery, Charly still loses to Algernon and is initially angry at not immediately becoming smarter. Eventually, he beats Algernon and his intelligence begins to increase rapidly. Charly's co-workers tell him to use a machine that they think is too complex for him to operate, hoping that he will break it so they can have the day off. When he successfully works the machine, though, they become displeased that he is now too intelligent to fall for their jokes and get him fired from the bakery. Alice continues teaching him, but he soon surpasses her. Nemur and Straus argue over the importance of Charly's emotional development, with Straus pointing to the drawings and paintings he has created (including several abstract nude figures of Alice) as evidence of his need to mature in this respect.

Charly becomes infatuated with Alice and questions whether she loves her fiancé. He follows her to her apartment one night, declaring his love for her, but flees after she sharply rejects his sexual advances. He briefly rebels by immersing himself in the counterculture – riding a motorcycle, kissing a series of different women, smoking and dancing – but eventually returns to Boston. The two reconcile, and both realize that they want to be together and consider marriage.

Four weeks later, Nemur and Straus present their research at a convention of scientists, playing back film footage of Charly's aptitude tests before bringing him out for a question-and-answer session. Angry and aggressive over seeing the audience laugh at his past behavior, he reveals that Algernon has died after regressing to his original mental state – a fact that had been withheld from him – and that he expects to lose his own enhanced intelligence as well. Charly flees the convention, but hallucinates seeing his former self everywhere he goes. Stopping at a bar for a drink, he sees a mentally handicapped busboy drop a tray of glasses; the other customers laugh at the incident, but stop when Charly silently begins to help the busboy clean up the mess.

Charly overhears an argument among Alice, Nemur, and Straus over the decision to keep Algernon's regression a secret from him and offers to help research the issue. He works with Nemur and Straus in the hope that his intelligence can be saved, but the results indicate that nothing can be done. Alice visits Charly and asks him to marry her, but he refuses and tells her to leave. Some time later, Alice watches Charly playing with children at the playground (as seen at the start of the film), having reverted to his former self.


Music by[edit]

Production history[edit]


Photo from the 1961 television presentation "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon", with Mona Freeman in the role of Alice.

The short story Flowers for Algernon had previously been the basis of "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon", a 1961 television adaptation in which Robertson had also starred for CBS's U. S. Steel Hour.[4] Robertson had starred in a number of TV shows which were turned into films with other actors playing his role, such as Days of Wine and Roses. He bought the rights to the story, hoping to star in the film version as well.[5]

He originally hired William Goldman to write the screenplay on the strength of Goldman's novel No Way to Treat a Lady, paying him $30,000 out of his own pocket.[6] Robertson was unhappy with Goldman's work and then hired Stirling Silliphant to do a draft.[7]

Robertson did the role for only $25,000.[8]


The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on June 28, 1968.[1] It then opened at the Baronet Theatre in New York City on September 23, 1968.[1]

Box office[edit]

The film was a hit, earning $7.25 million in theatrical rentals during its release in North America, and it earned an additional $1.25 million in theatrical rentals overseas, making it the 16th-highest-grossing film of 1968.[9] After all costs were deducted (including $1,325,000 paid to profit share), the film reported a profit of $1,390,000, making it one of the few successful movies made by ABC Pictures.[3]

Critical reception[edit]

Vincent Canby called the film a "self-conscious contemporary drama, the first ever to exploit mental retardation for... the bittersweet romance of it"; he called Robertson's performance "earnest" but points out that "we [the audience] are forced into the vaguely unpleasant position of being voyeurs, congratulating ourselves for not being Charly as often as we feel a distant pity for him." Canby calls Nelson's direction "neo-Expo 67", referring to the use of split screen to "show simultaneously the reactions of two people facing each other and conversing" and the use of "little postage stamp-sized inserts of images within the larger screen frame."[10] Time magazine called Charly an "odd little movie about mental retardation and the dangers of all-conquering science, done with a dash of whimsy." While "the historic sights in and around Charly's Boston setting have never been more lovingly filmed", "The impact of [Robertson's] lessened by Producer-Director Ralph Nelson's determination to prove that he learned how to be new and now at Expo '67: almost every other sequence is done in split screens, multiple images, still shots or slow motion."[11] Screenwriter (and Hollywood blacklist target[12]) Maurice Rapf[13] called Robertson's performance "extraordinary" and called "astonishing" his on-screen "transformation from one end of the intellectual spectrum to the other"; Rapf took issue with what he called the "pyrotechnics of the camera" and the "flashy opticals", calling the effects "jarringly out of place" and better suited for a "no-story mod film like The Knack."[14]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, saying "The relationship between Charly (Cliff Robertson) and the girl (Claire Bloom) is handled delicately and well. She cares for him, but inadequately understands the problems he's facing. These become more serious when he passes normal IQ and moves into the genius category; his emotional development falls behind. It is this story, involving a personal crisis, which makes Charly a warm and rewarding film." By contrast, Ebert pointed out "the whole scientific hocus-pocus, which causes his crisis, is irrelevant and weakens the movie by distracting us."[15]

In 2009, Entertainment Weekly listed Charly among its "25 Best Movie Tearjerkers Ever."[16]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Cliff Robertson Won
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Ralph Nelson Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Charly Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Cliff Robertson Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Stirling Silliphant Won
Hugo Awards[17] Best Dramatic Presentation Ralph Nelson (director), Stirling Silliphant (screenplay) and Daniel Keyes (original story) Nominated
Laurel Awards Top Drama Charly Nominated
Top Male Dramatic Performance Cliff Robertson Nominated
National Board of Review Awards[18] Top Ten Films Charly Won
Best Actor Cliff Robertson Won

Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award for Best Actor, under some controversy: less than two weeks after the ceremony, Time magazine mentioned the Academy's generalized concerns over "excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes" and said "many members agreed that Robertson's award was based more on promotion than on performance".[19]

Proposed sequel[edit]

In the late 1970s, following a period of extended unemployment that followed an act of whistle-blowing against David Begelman, the then-president of Columbia Pictures, Robertson wrote and attempted to produce Charly II, to no avail.[20]

Home media[edit]

Charly was released on Region 1 DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on March 31, 2005.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Charly at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ "Charly (1968): Original Print Information". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c "ABC's 5 Years of Film Production Profits & Losses", Variety, May 31, 1973, pg 3.
  4. ^ "Charly (1968): Notes". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  5. ^ Karen, Zraick (September 11, 2011). "Oscar-winner Cliff Robertson dies in US at 88". Associated Press. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
  6. ^ Dennis Brown, Shoptalk, Newmarket Press, 1992 p 63
  7. ^ William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade, 1982 p 164-176
  8. ^ Loynd, Ray (April 25, 1969). "No Flap Over Oscar Absence--Robertson". Los Angeles Times. p. i10.
  9. ^ "Top Grossing Films of 1968".
  10. ^ Vincent Canby (September 24, 1968). "The Screen: Cliff Robertson in Title Role of Charly". The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  11. ^ "Cinema: Medical Menace". Time. October 18, 1968. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  12. ^ "Maurice Rapf, 88, Screenwriter and Film Professor". The New York Times. April 18, 2003.
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ Maurice Rapf (November 1, 1968). "Is Charly Cuter Than Necessary?". Life. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  15. ^ Roger Ebert (December 31, 1968). "Charly". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  16. ^ "25 Best Movie Tearjerkers Ever". Entertainment Weekly. June 26, 2009. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  17. ^ "1969 Hugo Awards". World Science Fiction Society. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  18. ^ "Awards for 1968". National Board of Review. Archived from the original on November 25, 2010. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  19. ^ "The Trade: Grand Illusion". Time. April 25, 1969. Retrieved March 25, 2011.
  20. ^ Michelle Green (December 5, 1983). "Hollywood's Mr. Clean Shot Down David Begelman; Now the Actor Has Pulled His Career Out of a Nose Dive". People. 20 (23). Retrieved March 25, 2011. Hoping to capitalize on his 1968 Oscar-winning role in Charly, playing a mentally retarded man who becomes, briefly, a genius, he wrote and began peddling Charly II, only to have the film's backers pull out.

External links[edit]