Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Few Words on Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston died the other day and it is sad to me to have him remembered only for his NRA positions and his embarrassing appearance in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Heston was from an era in Hollywood that doesn't exist any more- there aren't too many sword and sandal films or westerns being produced these days.

Can you imagine a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt in Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments? Can you imagine Heston in Oceans 11?
Nope. There is an irony with today's stars that just doesn't allow a Ten Commandments to get made. Even remakes of Heston films like The Omega Man (Will Smith in the Heston role) and Planet of the Apes (Mark Wahlberg) use FX to tell the story and the strong leading man plays second fiddle to the technology.

No, what makes the Heston versions of those films work is that he is us. Charlton Heston, the actor, not the character is our representative staring down the planet of the apes or discovering what soylent green really is. In Tuesday's Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern wrote of Heston, "What he did in that film (Omega Man) may not have constituted great acting, but he created a great presence, a one-man surrogate for the beleaguered forces of civilization."

Later in Morgenstern's piece he quotes from Pauline Kael's review in The New Yorker of The Planet of the Apes. "With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body," she wrote, "Heston is a godlike hero; built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play a nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power -- and he has the profile of an eagle."

In the cold war era, I think we needed guys like Heston, just like we needed counter culture figures like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to balance him out. Somewhere between those two ends is a real American hero. Charlton Heston was on the far right edge of that frame.