Sunday, April 06, 2008

RIP Charlton Heston

The last time I saw Charlton Heston in a film was Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, defending gun rights. He was clearly debilitated, and whatever your position on the subject it was not a fitting epitaph. But it would have been out of character for him not to debate an issue so close to him, and his appearance takes the wind out of Moore's sails. Like the historical figures he so often played, each stamped with his authority, Heston knew that showing up was half the battle. (And he continued to show up on screen, making a final film appearance as Nazi experimenter Dr. Josef Mengele in an obscure 2003 credit, My Father. That Heston and his liberal counterpart, Gregory Peck, both played the "Angel of Death" is fascinating. The two actors squared off in 1958's The Big Country, and debated each other onstage.)

Heston's granite good looks and set-in-stone principles made him ideal for Biblical epics and biopics. (What could he have learned at Northwestern, my alma mater, that he was not seemingly born to?) The Ten Commandments and his Oscar winner, Ben-Hur, are unthinkable without him. And he makes it difficult to think of Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy), say, or explorer William Clark (The Far Horizons) in any other way--surely, they had to be Charlton Heston. In 1966's Khartoum, he adopts a light British accent to play General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, safeguarding the Sudan against the forces of the Mahdi in the Gladstone era. He is probably as much like Gordon as Laurence Olivier, in Othello blackface, was like the Mahdi. No matter--the clash of acting styles is completely absorbing, and it drives the central conflict home. The picture is one of my favorite historical epics, and unsung.

Having buttressed a kind of Hollywood filmmaking in the Fifties and Sixties, Heston basically saved the Seventies for the unsure-of-itself town, with a string of disaster pictures that delighted me as kid. Lumet, Scorsese, etc., are all well and good, and emulated and hommaged by generation-after filmmakers, but Hollywood is a business town, and Heston, a company man, delivered big time: The Omega Man (Will Smith indeed!), Sykjacked, Soylent Green (where he and Edward G. Robinson, touching together, figure out that we really are what we eat), Airport 1975, Earthquake, Two Minute Warning, Gray Lady Down. Not all were hits, but they and their spawn kept the machinery cranking along. That Heston was on the job, saving earthquake survivors, landing the planes, and evacuating sniper-maddened stadiums undoubtedly reassured viewers who shared in the unease of the decade. (The Nineties cycle of disaster films just wasn't the same without his stalwart, take-charge presence, though he did narrate 1998's Armageddon.)

It wasn't all gimmicks. He is terrific as an aging saddletramp in 1968's Will Penny, and binds the fragments of Sam Peckinpah's uncertain, forward-looking Major Dundee (1965). Anticipating the future he saves a swatch of humanity against devouring ant hordes in 1954's fine The Naked Jungle. Orson Welles could not have gotten the exquisite Touch of Evil (1958) off the ground without him--audiences chuckle at his Mexican cop, yet the laughter dies quick. The casting may have been implausible sometimes, the situations silly. But he was never absurd. (Not even in Wayne's World 2, where his stolidity, as the "Good Actor," is, well, "awesome.")

Without him, Planet of the Apes, his very best credit I think, would never have become the cultural phenomenon it was. The poor 2001 remake put him in an ape costume, satisfying in a sight-gag way but as wrong-headed as everything else. Heston's stubborn, egocentric, wounded humanity, leavened with bitter humor and a delightful hint of self-parody, is the very essence of the original. Offscreen, he was problematic, as the vitriol his death has unleashed online suggests. Onscreen, as a people, no one represented us as well.

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