Monday, April 07, 2008

R.I.P. Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston passed away yesterday at the age of 84. Screen god, public face of NRA, my first movie-star crush, he represented many (and frequently conflicting) things to many people...yet no man conveyed such a clear and powerful sense of a unified self.

There's certainly been no lack of response to his passing, and not all of it has been kind. I personally have little to no affinity with his political views, and I was squarely in the camp that found no fault with Michael Moore's (in)famous "ambush" of the old gentleman in "Bowling for Columbine." Yet I cleave to the old-fashioned belief that a man's death accords a decent period of respect - as much for his loved ones as for himself - and a fair-minded recognition of his accomplishments. And Heston's were considerable. The peerless Self-Styled Siren offers a characteristically perceptive and beautifully written tribute to Heston's best work. I can hardly improve on her analysis; for my part, all I can offer is a snapshot of Heston's impact on me.

I believe, though I am not positive, that my first acquaintance with Heston was in "The Big Country," an underrated 1958 western starring Gregory Peck that happens to be one of my favorite movies - a preference I'm proud to share with the Siren. I went into "The Big Country" already knowing that I adored Gregory Peck, and the film certainly fortified that attachment. But I also couldn't help noticing Heston as Steve Leech, the surly foreman who spends the better part of the movie smouldering with silent resentment towards the stranger who's laid claim to the woman Steve loves. His smouldering was sexy, even as his open insolence towards my beloved Peck made me angry. But as Steve's opinion of Peck's character shifts from envy and contempt to grudging respect - with the help of a great fight scene (prefaced by a magnificent and totally gratuitous shot of a shirtless, sleeping Heston) - it's reflected in Heston's expression, even his body language. You can see the uncertainty creep into his demeanor and carriage, perhaps nowhere more tellingly - if obliquely - than in the moment when, for the first time in his life, Steve goes against his adoptive father's orders. In the end, loyalty wins the day, but in place of his once coolly measuring gaze, we now see the mark of reflection and a half-sheepish resignation.

Not all of this registered with a first viewing; while I loved "The Big Country" instantaneously, only after seeing it several times did I come to appreciate the film's many nuances, including Heston's performance. But even before I reached that point, I'd already experienced another William Wyler film that elevated Heston to a whole new plane in my consciousness. I'm referring, of course, to the mother of all pious epics with subversive undercurrents, "Ben-Hur." As the titular protagonist, Heston acts like one completely unaware of those subversive undercurrents - whether or not he in fact was unaware is open to debate - but for purposes of the film's dramatic tension, it actually works. Judah Ben-Hur is, after all, a character wholly devoid of irony, though the victim of a larger cosmic irony. Into his overdetermined but, to me, still beautiful narrative arc (must be that Catholic school upbringing) from Old Testament revenge to New Testament forgiveness, Heston brought a driving force and energy that made him more than a simple moral archetype or Biblical action-man. Once again he managed to make suppressed fury remarkably sexy, and its transcendence heroic yet humbing.

I still remember one pivotal scene in which Judah, hovering on the cusp between his old, vengeful self and his future redeemed self, confronts Esther for having lied to him about his mother and sister. Before he addresses her, he's watching her from above, knowing she's been to see them. And in that look he directs at her - full of seething, conflicting emotions, with rage working its way to the surface - there is something a little menacing, but also, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty damn hot. No one could seethe like Heston. In his most signature roles (from "Touch of Evil" to "Planet of the Apes"), there was always an undercurrent of anger - righteous, of course - beneath that chiselled integrity, anger that fell just short of brutality, and Heston had a gift for making it oddly, loin-stirringly compelling.

Once past leading-man age, Heston showed some willingness to poke fun at the myth of Heston, one trivial example being his cameo in "True Lies," which some saw as something of a torch-passing to his late-20th century successor, Arnold Governator. Unfortunately, such ventures fell in the shadow of the principal public role that came to dominate his later years: president of the NRA, whose most quoted line came back to haunt gun-control advocates everywhere. Then came the debacle of "Bowling for Columbine" and the affliction of Alzheimer's: If Heston ever reevaluated any of his convictions, the world never saw it.

Ultimately, however, there's every reason to believe that Heston's screen work, and not his political work, will be the legacy that survives him the longest. He, arguably more than any other actor of his generation, embodied a peculiarly American ideal of the heroic struggle. Bathed in deifying light yet edged in existential darkness, enfolded in an intensity that sometimes verged on madness, he represented something of a transitional point between the weary stoicism of John Wayne and Gary Cooper and the despairing excess of Marlon Brando (Heston's exact contemporary, I believe) and those who followed in Brando's footsteps. One of the last of the old school of movie stars, Heston was the hero who could inspire both trust and fear in the hearts of men - and women - everywhere.


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