Charlton Heston can’t RIP
Here is the Washington Times obituary, a second-day piece for Monday’s paper. Heston died so late Saturday night, that all the late-night crew could get before the last print run was a four-paragraph brief noting the bare facts. (I insisted Sunday that if the Washington Times ever needed a staff-byline on an actor’s obituary, it would be for Charlton Heston, and I’d have written it myself if I’d had to.)
Such devotion offended liberal firebrands, however. Filmmaker Michael Moore sprung what many considered an unfair on-camera interview on Mr. Heston at the actors home in the 2002 film “Bowling for Columbine.” Mr. Heston was starting to display neurological symptoms at the time.
Yesterday, some progressive bloggers offered less than flattering comments about Mr. Heston’s passing.
Warner Todd Huston, who monitors liberal media for the conservative watchdog Newsbusters, yesterday drew attention to the Daily Kos, citing dozens of contributors who called Mr. Heston a “gun nut” — that’s one of the printable epithets — shortly after his death was made public.
“Too often people confuse the politics with the man and the passion for the issues overwhelms civil behavior,” Mr. Huston said.
But what made the awful crap worse, as Stacy points out, is that so many liberals felt a need to say, on this day of all days, that Heston was a bad actor (though I don’t believe Fire Dog Lake or the Yglesias commenters are doing anything but rationalizing their political judgments; you want to retch at stuff like this). Acting tastes differ and acting fashions change (more on that in a moment), but how narrow must a man’s moral sight be to waste neurons, silicon space, and perfectly good 1s and 0s ranting about what a bad actor a man (supposedly) is on the day of his death. Though political figures by definition have mixed legacies, and noting this in a respectful fashion is quite fair even in an obit, I devoutly believe in “de mortuis nil nisi bonum,”¹ particularly about artists, and doubt the moral sanity and basic decency of those who do not — one reason I doubt that moral sanity and basic decency are widespread among liberals. (In the interests of equal time, here’s a piece from a Huffington Post writer that isn’t the usual bile, though the commenters note that it’s the exception even on that site.)
When I found out late Saturday night that Heston had died, the movie I decided to watch was MAJOR DUNDEE, the extended version of which is I think was the only Heston movie I have but never seen. It’s an intermittently brilliant if ultimately unsatisfactory Sam Peckinpah film. A story with some resemblance to THE SEARCHERS, Heston plays a bottom-of-the-rung Union cavalry commander in New Mexico near the end of the Civil War who goes hunting Apaches to avenge a slaughter at another fort and saved some kidnapped children — and let’s say he cuts some corners from the very beginning. The film looks gorgeous (Peckinpah could make dust and grime sing better than anybody not named Sergio Leone), the action set pieces, particularly the French lancers, has Peckinpah’s staging and framing, and Heston has one of his better characters and a very strong co-star in Richard Harris as a Confederate prisoner and former West Point colleague (the relationship and push-pull of male honor between the two is the dominant theme). But it’s very hard to react to what it is because even the extended version is so plainly the victim of studio butchery — the obviously expository voice-over is as off-toned and ill-fitting as anything in Bresson or Ed Wood, e.g., and supporting characters drop in and drop out without rhyme or reason — that you’re thinking more about what MAJOR DUNDEE could have been than what it is. Heston tried to save it from cost overruns and Columbia’s midstream budget-squeezing by deferring his salary, an unheard of mid-shoot gesture at the time and an indication of how much he believed in this project.
But as to Heston as an actor … in his terrific appreciation of Heston for the American Spectator, Stacy makes a very sensible point about any actor who was such a enormous star as Heston … that it can’t be just looks:
HESTON’S VOICE WAS his greatest asset as an actor. He was handsome, but so were many other actors. He had the muscular physique required for such sword-and-sandals epics as Ben Hur, but directors never had a shortage of brawny leading men, and neither Steve Reeves nor Johnny Weismuller ever won Oscars. It was his deep, resonant voice that set Heston apart from the Hollywood herd.
Heston also had a voice — a voice that had resonance and timbre that, combined with his physique (I’m talking about his frame, his facial shape and the way he carried both) screamed authority and gravity. Or as Stacy puts it:
His stage training gave Heston the gravitas necessary to seem believably natural when speaking the almost comically stilted dialogue required by his many historical roles. (Sample line from The Ten Commandments: “What change is there in me? Egyptian or Hebrew, I am still Moses. These are the same hands, the same arms, the same face that was mine a moment ago.”)
Even in schlocky sci-fi films, Heston’s voice had the power to turn an otherwise absurd phrase — “Soylent Green is people!” — into a memorable line. Roddy McDowell was a fine actor, yet no one ever quotes his dialogue from Planet of the Apes. Instead, they remember Heston: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” A silly sentence somehow infused with significance, simply because Heston said it.
I swear to God that it is a coincidence that Stacy and the Times quoted almost the same two lines — they were such clear-cut choices for quotation. The first-named line was cited when people were discussing Heston on Sunday — it’s a guttural cry of despair that a lesser voice could not make so memorable, even for parody’s sake (there’s an SNL sketch parodying Heston). As for the second line, it’s the first time that the apes have heard humans speak, and hearing them from the Charlton Heston voice, you better believe it shook them down to the bones as much as an ape talking to us today would.
Now, I’m gonna say this carefully. Heston was definitely a Big Actor — and I’m not referring to his size or his build (though they’re not irrelevant; his body fit his voice) but to his voicy and dramatic style. It was made for larger-than-life heroic roles, and there was no better actor of this type than Heston. But it’s nevertheless a style that’s somewhat out-of-fashion, for reasons having nothing to do with the NRA, Time Warner and Ice-T, or any of that. As I say, it’s perfectly sane — if a bit tactless on this day — not to like Heston as an actor or to note that he made some rather bad movies (as did most stars of his era or the studio era).
But though my aesthetic preference is for more-understated styles, part of being a great actor is knowing what you can do well and getting that roles that fit you. I once wrote the following in denouncing the 2001 desecration remake of PLANET OF APES, with Mark Wahlberg in the lead:
And then we get to the lead performer. Now it needs no saying that Charlton Heston in the original overacted in that muscular-barechested-hero sort of way, but at least he’s acting (in fact, Heston is quite effective in those roles he’s had where his Acting is appropriate). Mark Wahlberg seems like he’s hardly interested. To cite Jonah [Goldberg] again, he’s giving a Henry V, loin-girding speech to his troops and it’s in the tone of a mechanic telling someone when his car will be ready. Then he says “c’mon, let’s go” (or something very similar) as though he was the QB breaking huddle at a pickup game of touch football.Wahlberg has all the range of a plate of grits and half the flavor.
John Wayne said “I play John Wayne in every picture regardless of the character, and I’ve been doing all right, haven’t I?” Now Heston had far more range than Wayne, but he was still an icon who could never do a light romantic comedy, say, or play an outright heavy. But **if a role called for an icon,** there was nobody better in his generation (his peers were usually about 10 years older — Wayne, Cagney, Peck, Mitchum, Douglas, Lancaster). My turkbud Bilge Ebiri once said that “if any film needed Charlton Heston in the lead, it was PLANET OF THE APES.” It was Heston’s unforgettable presence and heroic performance turned a lengthy Twilight Zone episode into a classic.
Kenneth Branagh has tried every casting gimmick known to man or beast, often with ludicrous results, but the one that paid off the most handsomely was having Heston play the Player King in his 1996 film of HAMLET, when Heston recorded on film for all time what he could really do as an actor, with the most stylized and greatest of English-language writers. I couldn’t find a way of working mention of that role into the Times obit, but I think it was his best performance, if not so well-known as Ben-Hur, El Cid, Moses, etc. Anybody who thinks Heston couldn’t act is invited to watch this until he repents:
¹ There are some spectacular exceptions of course — I doubt I’ll feel too bad on the day of Charles Manson’s or Fidel Castro’s death (Father Martin Fox once explained to me how to licitly pray for Castro’s death: “pray that he be in Heaven soon”). But nobody who would compare being on the wrong side of the relatively low-stakes issues of American politics for being a murderer or a political dictator has a sense of proportion or self-skepticism that I feel bound to respect.