Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston, 1923-2008

There is a story that Jean-Luc Godard, although he despised John Wayne’s politics, nonetheless burst into tears at the moment in The Searchers (1956) when the John Wayne character, Ethan Edwards, rather than killing his niece Debbie as we think he’s going to, sweeps the girl up in his arms and says to her, tenderly, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Thus Godard understood early on something about the cinema that a filmmaker such as Michael Moore, apparently, never has: no amount of ideological demystification can diminish the sheer power of the movies—or movie stars, for that matter. In my undergraduate days at a major midwestern university, I remember standing in line to see Citizen Kane; there were several screenings that day, each of them with packed audiences. As the earlier crowd was leaving the theater so that we, the next audience, could take our seats, as he was leaving a spoilsport who’d just seen the film yelled out, loudly, so that all waiting to see the next screening of the movie might hear him, “Rosebud’s a sled!” But the joke was on him: did he really think that we were all waiting in line to see Citizen Kane merely in order to learn the final revelation of its grand enigma, as if that is what going to the movies is all about?

John Wayne became the biggest movie star of all time because he understood the fundamental principle about being a movie star: play yourself. Robert B. Ray writes:

Film stars, in fact, have always been less actors than personalities, paid to personify (rather than impersonate) a certain character type. As one film historian (Ronald L. Davis) has written, “Most of the old studio stars created a persona, and they acted that persona no matter what role they played. Audiences flocked to the theaters more to see their favorite stars than to watch realistic performances. . . . Most of the great Hollywood stars were almost pure personality, like Clark Gable, who didn’t much like acting.” (“The Riddle of Elvis-the-Actor,” 103-04)

Charlton Heston was a great Hollywood movie star because he was pure personality--he played himself. He can thank Cecil B. DeMille in large part for his magnificent career, for it was DeMille—who didn’t care two pins for so-called “realistic” acting, despite his claims to the contrary—who early on realized that Heston never would be effective at playing “slice-of-life” drama: his personality was too strong, his acting skills too rudimentary, to succeed at that sort of performance. Thus it was only appropriate that his star-making performance should have been in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a superb melodrama that’s really more like vaudeville than “slice-of-life.” As circus boss Brad, Heston commanded that heterogeneous group of circus performers by sheer force of his personality, not by patient, carefully reasoned argument. That movie was the proverbial harbinger of things to come: he played the same role for DeMille again, but under a different name, in The Ten Commandments (1956).

He won an Academy Award for his performance in the Biblical epic Ben-Hur--this time reprising his role from The Ten Commandments rather than The Greatest Show on Earth--and thus became a Big Star. But had Charlton Heston by chance died after making Ben-Hur, he would have become simply the answer to a trivia question: the actor who played Moses. Or perhaps the actor who appeared in one of Orson Welles' best later films, Touch of Evil (1958).

Although I now contradict the standard (sanctioned) career retrospective, his greatness as an actor lies in the films he made in the 1960s and 1970s, films such as El Cid (1961), Khartoum (1966), and Planet of the Apes (1968). It is the latter movie that placed Charlton Heston on that privileged Mount Rushmore of Hollywood stars inside my head--it has remained one of my Top 10 favorite movies for forty years. Planet of the Apes gave Charlton Heston one of the greatest moments--and greatest punch lines--in Hollywood history, and only Heston could have delivered that line addressed to a "damned dirty ape" with such memorable panache, a mixture of arrogance, contempt, loathing, recalcitrance, and seething hatred.

Moreover, after the triumph of Planet of the Apes, he performed in a series of apocalyptic films that I still find remarkable:

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
The Omega Man (1971)
Soylent Green (1973)

He dies the reluctant martyr in each one, going one step further than Brando, who often greatly physically suffered, but seldom died. It has been observed, correctly, that Marlon Brando brought to the movie screen an eroticized violence, in films such as On the Waterfront (1954), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), and The Chase (1966). I think Charlton Heston learned from these films, and like Brando began to take on roles in which he had to suffer great physical violence at the hands of his enemies: he suffered, but like Samson, took his enemies with him. I love his performance as the cynical, corrupt cop in Soylent Green: he's by turns slimy, nasty, thuggish, sentimental, and teary-eyed--and has to suffer a terrible beating by someone who's even more slimy, nasty, and thuggish, and corrupt than he is, Chuck Connors. And at the end of Soylent Green he gets to utter another famous line, but this time not yelled out with arrogance or hatred, but with revulsion and disgust mixed with resignation: "Soylent green is people."

And then, afterwards, with the films he made after that amazing stretch from 1968-1973, he was the movie star, always playing himself, as certain as gravity, his face as instantly recognizable as one's own. He would later appear on a couple episodes of Saturday Night Live, shows which I've seen in re-run; he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself, and having fun puncturing his own image. Always the actor, he couldn't turn down the limelight, accepting the controversial role as figurehead for the NRA--leader once again, defending the U. S. Bill of Rights as Moses defended the ten commandments. But unlike Michael Moore, his politics didn't much interest me. Counterculture figures such as Frank Zappa defended the Bill of Rights, too--remember the Grand Funk Railroad album Zappa produced, Good Singin' Good Playin' (1976), the album which contained the song, "Don't Let 'em Take Your Gun"?

Charlton Heston will forever remain one of my favorite Hollywood stars, one of the stars who in my lifetime conjured up the magic of the cinema, and drew me under its spell. He did so for a reason I hope he would take as a sincere compliment: by sheer force of his personality.


Anonymous said...

In a concert recorded in Canada in (I think) 1969, the late folk singer Phil Ochs talked onstage about his love for John Wayne as an American icon apart from his politics, which Ochs himself abhorred. He seemed genuinely offended when the Canadian audience laughed at his classification of Wayne as a great actor ("in his own idiom") and muttered his disappointment under his breath before continuing with his next song. It takes a little bit of courage and a lot of honesty to appreciate someone's art apart from their politics but it's worth doing and must be done, I think.


I'm glad to be reading such keen insights about Heston that mirror my own thoughts - both in regards to his work in the science-fiction realm, and in terms of keeping the work apart from his later politics.

swac said...

I'm also a left-leaning Heston fan, it's just impossible to deny the power of his presence onscreen (and I feel pretty much the same way about Wayne too, although I think he made many more weaker films). I was lucky enough to meet the man on two occasions and definitely felt some of that movie star aura, once while touring the deck of an aircraft carrier, no less. I even got him to sign a vinyl LP from the '50s where he reads from the books of Moses (he joked that he thought they'd burned all the copies), one of very few celebrity autographs I've ever bothered to pursue.

For me, the period where his politics began veering to the right largely took place as his film career was waning, and it doesn't intrude on my mind while watching something like The Big Country or Major Dundee. (Mind you, I still enjoy later cameos in films like True Lies and In the Mouth of Madness.) On Friday I'm going to watch the new El Cid DVD and Khartoum with some friends and enjoy them for what they are; epics of a bygone era with larger than life performances.

I found it sad he would succumb to Alzheimer's, rather than go out fighting vampires or damn dirty apes, but celluloid immortality is better than none at all.