Don't Tell Chuck
Originally published April 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
He was no girlie-man, that Charlton Heston. The epic screen actor didn’t do small or sensitive or morally complex; he did big, commanding and utterly sure of himself. His signature roles were all Great Men, largely untroubled by indecision, doubt or mixed motives. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, it wasn’t that litany of plagues that Moses called down upon Pharaoh’s Egypt that made him so riveting; it was Heston’s air of terrible certainty, his ruthless, implacable rectitude. His screen persona wasn’t dumb, but he didn’t much value intelligence or even need it. What he lacked in smarts he made up for with conviction and a peculiarly inflexible strength. He was insistently, incurably holier than thou, and he operated, as Stephen Colbert has observed of George W. Bush, from the gut.
Charlton Heston (Wikimedia Commons/Tillman)
And what a gut. With his strapping body, a Mount Rushmore face and a basso profundo voice rivaling that of his one-time director and co-star Orson Welles (in one of Heston’s better if most unlikely roles, as a Mexican cop in 1958’s Touch of Evil), he was genetically engineered to play the hero in a cinematic age before heroes became anti-heroes. His acting style was a projection of his physique: lean, beefy and stiff. He was All Man, as they used to say so unself-consciously at mid-century, and to put him in a role that required much nuance or subtlety — not to mention any hint of a poetic, dare we say feminine side — was to flirt with unintended comedy. As a surprisingly butch Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Heston growls at the Sistine Chapel that there’s too much red. Too much agony, not enough ecstasy; it calls to mind an old Doonesbury cartoon in which Donald Trump yells up at an employee painting a Sistine-like mural in one of his palaces, “Give those nymphs some hooters!”
Heston’s strength — his unbending masculinity — was also his weakness as an actor, a fact that his more thoughtful directors grappled with from time to time. One of the highlights of The Celluloid Closet, the 1995 film documentary about the history of gays and lesbians in American movies, is Gore Vidal’s gleeful retelling of his conversation with William Wyler just before the shooting of Heston’s lone Oscar-winning role in the sword-and-sandal epic Ben-Hur (1959). Rehearsals were going poorly, so to goose the drama, Vidal suggested adding a homoerotic back-story to scenes between Heston and Stephen Boyd, who played Messala. Their characters were to have been young lovers, separated for years and now reunited; Messala wanted to hook up again, but Judah Ben-Hur wasn’t interested — which would give their subsequent enmity extra emotional juice. According to Vidal, a troubled Wyler pondered the scheme and finally gave his assent: “But don’t tell Chuck, because he’ll fall apart.”
It wasn’t a conversation most directors would have avoided having with any number of Method-loving Hollywood leading men already on the scene, including Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. The first of Brando’s highly influential Oscar-winning turns, as the tortured ex-prizefighter in On the Waterfront, came in 1954, three years after the volcanic yet vulnerable Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; we forget that his famous bellowing of “Stella!” was less a Napoleonic command for his wife to appear than a wounded boy’s cry for his surrogate mommy. In his wildest dreams, Heston could never have managed such a thing.
Then again, his dreams were probably never that wild. He was one of the last survivors of a generation of screen icons — John Wayne, Gary Cooper — who were more movie stars than actors. Less was more; you stood still, looked people in the eye (maybe squinting a little), and let the camera do the work. This isn’t to say that they didn’t give interesting, even great performances on occasion, as Cooper did in Meet John Doe (1941) and High Noon (1952), as Wayne did in The Searchers (1956) and The Shootist (1976); theirs was a minimalist art, and perhaps necessarily so, given what was going on — or not — behind those blank and ruggedly handsome faces.
Certainly you didn’t often see them thinking onscreen, as you saw Brando in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (both 1972). Instead you saw them simply being what they were: big lugs, comfortable to a fault in their own skin. As beautiful as Brando was in his heyday, and as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and George Clooney have been in theirs, the stand-and-model approach to film acting was never enough for them. For Heston, it had to be, since his bag of acting tricks was almost empty from the first. What could have saved him — as it has sometimes saved latter-day stand-and-modelers like Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey — was a sense of humor; alas, Heston seems to have had none, at least until his career was beginning to wind down in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the rise of the New Hollywood was rendering him passé.
It was then, in fact, that he gave some of his best performances — in sci-fi flicks, in which the relatively lower dramatic stakes seem to have loosened him up. In Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973), you feel a trace of self-parody, conscious or not, beginning to creep into his style, a bud of irony that begins to bloom in the disaster movies Earthquake and Airport 1975 (both 1974) and reaches full flower in the mid-’80s on the campily glamorous “Dynasty” spinoff, “The Colbys.”
Heston’s last notable performance — although there’s no evidence that he wasn’t fueled, as always, by conviction — was as the president of the National Rifle Association in 1998-2003. He had once been a liberal, marching for civil rights in the South, but, like his fellow actor and ex-Democrat Ronald Reagan, had become an archconservative. The NRA, as the Republican Party had done with Reagan, jumped at the chance to recruit a rangy screen patriarch to its cause. All of Heston’s signal qualities — his good looks, his booming voice, and above all his famous singleness of purpose, untainted by the slightest scintilla of doubt — made him a nuttily effective spokesman for the gun lobby. There was Heston in 2000, waving a rifle over his head and accusing Al Gore of plotting to take away his Second Amendment rights; it was the brandishing of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments all over again. “Hey,” an NRA vice president chortled, “Moses is on our side.”