Sunday, April 06, 2008
Charlton Heston, 1923-2008
He isn't often mentioned in the same breath with great male heartthrobs such as Gary Cooper or his contemporaries Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck, but Charlton Heston was one of the most breathtakingly handsome men in the annals of American cinema. To get his first major role in a big-budget movie, all he had to do was walk across the Paramount lot--Cecil B. DeMille spotted him and presto, Heston was the lead in The Greatest Show on Earth. Heston's was a beauty uniquely suited to epics, so striking, symmetrical and sculpted that no matter how wide you made the screen, how much period paraphernalia you hung around the set or how many good-looking extras you had milling around, he held the gaze.
But if general gorgeousness were all it took to make a memorable performance in an epic, Jeffrey Hunter would have hit King of Kings out of the park. Heston could take a character like Judah Ben-Hur, almost literally a plaster saint, and give him life. Not real life, mind you, but if you wanted reality you didn't seek it at a roadshow engagement. What Heston gave his historical characters was the power of his own belief in them, no matter how improbable the setting. His finely detailed memoirs reveal a man who never wanted for self-respect, and it translated into a screen persona that absolutely demanded your credulity. Heston believed he was Moses, El Cid, a heterosexual Michelangelo, believed it with such burning intensity he swept the audience along. You may question the setting, the special effects, the dialogue, the dialect, the leading lady's eyeliner, but never Heston's absolute conviction in his character.
Several Heston performances outshine the movie itself, such as his George "Chinese" Gordon in Khartoum--a shaky accent but an enjoyable performance that got better notices at the time than did costar Laurence Olivier. He's also the Siren's favorite thing in The Big Country, a movie she loves and has seen many times. Heston's character, the unfortunately named Steve Leech, is often described as a heavy but he's no such thing, just a strong silent type eaten up with love for Carroll Baker and determined not to lose her. Heston often had a lack of chemistry with his leading ladies, perhaps because the diva-esque prerogatives of stars like Sophia Loren and Ava Gardner drove the punctual, meticulous Heston round the bend. But in The Big Country his scenes with Baker smolder, and his longing for her is so nakedly sexual and apparent that you sympathize with Leech long before the character starts to do anything sympathetic.
In his science fiction movies, particularly Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, Heston's presence gives the viewer something to hang onto amid the dystopia. The world has gone to hell, we're overrun with ragged, starving masses or damned dirty apes, but you pin your hopes on his sheer Charlton Heston-ness. Those shoulders won't bow down no matter how bad things get.
Heston's best work, however, came in his smaller-scale roles. In Will Penny, he reins in all the bigness and toughness and gives a gentle, nuanced portrayal of a hard-up cowhand, falling slowly and fearfully in love with Joan Hackett. When they finally kiss, the Siren's heart turns over. Heston always cited it as his favorite role.
Give Heston credit for something else: the man knew talent when he saw it, and had the courage to back new or underrated directors, as with Will Penny's Tom Gries. Another instance produced another one of his best films, Major Dundee. It's usually described as an interesting failure but the Siren likes this movie a lot, and likes Heston in it, too. When Sam Peckinpah ran into trouble with Columbia, Heston personally intervened, as David Shipman relates, "even offering to return his salary in an attempt to get things right (the studio, to his chagrin, accepted)." Heston was fine indeed as the Major whose harsh drive remains a mystery, unable to enjoy victory or accept defeat, slogging through fight after brutal, senseless fight.
If Charlton Heston had done nothing more in his professional life than to use his influence with Universal to help get Orson Welles the directing job on Touch of Evil, any cinephile worthy of the name would have reason to remember him fondly. The movie is without a doubt the best that Heston ever made, and the Siren wishes people would lay off his accent in it. No, it doesn't sound authentic , but what is important to the film is the way Heston's Mexican police officer counterbalances Welles' corrupt captain in every way. His character is courageous and virtuous, but Heston also plays Mike Vargas as stiff-necked, pompous and a trifle obtuse, the kind of man who would vibrate with righteous indignation if overcharged for the starch in his shirts. Vargas loves his wife and is fighting the good fight against racism and corruption. Yet Heston's performance, with its hint of priggishness, gives us room to see Hank Quinlan as human, with a touch of evil that makes him ultimately more sympathetic.
This week will undoubtedly witness a great deal of back and forth and back again about Heston's politics, given that most people last saw him not in character but at the podium of NRA rallies. But during his career Heston was an actor who approached each role with deep seriousness, repeatedly returning to the stage in between films until the lines would no longer stay in his memory. As the right- and left-wing comments sections runneth over, the Siren recuses herself. Whether you find his late-period activism admirable or appalling, what does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of a man, but it's the work that endures.
(Cross-posted at Newcritics.)