Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.

Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

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4 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger DamonO offered these pearls of wisdom...

I'll have to admit I have a different take on Heston. I never thought he was that great of an actor. Frankly, I think he sucked as an actor, so I'll probably mainly remember his as the gun-waving right-winger who, among other things, railed against affirmative action in his later years. Sort of like marching alongside Dr. King and later fighting against the things he fought for after his death.

For what its worth, after OJ croaks I probably won't remember him as a great football player either.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Mr. Fabulous offered these pearls of wisdom...

Hmm...I don't know that I have ever seen a Heston film...

10:42 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Damon: I hear you, my friend. It's one of those "Can I separate the artist from the person?" arguments.

Truth to tell, I can't always. But with Heston I can -- mostly, I think, because all of the films for which I remember him preceded his right turn into archconservatism.

Great actor? Not in the way you, and probably I, would use that phrase most of the time -- in the Denzel / Pacino / Clooney / Poitier sense. But he was a truly great movie star. I agree with pretty much every word of Mick LaSalle's reflection on Heston's career, as published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

And yes... I still do remember the football player -- and football hero -- O.J. once was. Which makes my feelings about O.J. today all the more painful.

4:03 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Mr. Fab: There's this new thing that came out recently. It's called television. All the rage with the kiddies. You might want to try it out. ;)

4:05 PM  

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