Saturday, April 05, 2008

Passings: Charlton Heston, actor

Hearing of the death of movie legend Charlton Heston at 84, from this corner at least, is tantamount to seeing one of the tallest, most majestic trees in the cinema forest felled.

The hell with his oft-paradoxical political views: Heston was loved and highly-regarded by co-workers, and he leaves behind a formidable legacy of film work. His unconventional but striking looks, his intensity and the rich cadence of that voice indelibly etched itself on the collective consciousness. I've literally known the man's work as long as I've known life, and his passing feels like the loss of a member of the family.

Charlton Heston represented one of the last sustained links between the glamour of the traditional Hollywood Studio System and the modern dream factory we know today. Unlike many of his peers, Heston sustained his relevance through some of American Cinema's most radical upheavals. Yeah, he could gnaw scenery with the relentlessness of a swarm of locusts, but his longevity reflected his versatility, his range, and his ability to cannily tweak his onscreen persona to masterfully reflect changing times and tastes.

That's the extent of my intellectualizing the career of Charlton Heston. His work, as always, speaks volumes. I could likely list three-dozen Heston films as picks to click, but my favorite Heston roles (in no particular order) are as follows:

The Ten Commandments (1956): Heston lent the elemental gravitas of an actor twice his age in this still-rousing DeMille period epic. An icon is born.

Ben Hur (1959): Look past the mindblowing chariot race climax, and it's Heston's spiritual journey that resonates. Here's a reverse-revisionist theory: Maybe he really DID deserve the Oscar.

Touch of Evil (1958): Orson Welles reportedly bristled at studio insistence that Heston play Mike Vargas, but (racial incongruity aside) the actor nailed Vargas' between-two-worlds conflict and the character's angry resolve in equal measure.

The Three Musketeers (1973): Ever dismiss Charlton Heston as pure uncured ham? Watch his quiet, cerebral, wryly humorous work here as Cardinal Richlieu, and have your preconceptions cut away with the efficiency of a Musketeer's foil.

Planet of the Apes (1967), Soylent Green (1973), and The Omega Man (1971): Yet another sizeable legacy that Heston left behind: He was one of the first big stars to put his talent and clout behind science fiction, thus helping to erode some of the genre's kids-stuff preconceptions. Planet of the Apes remains the jewel of this bunch with its masterful twist ending and Heston's existential hero; and Soylent Green hits the topicality button in between its pseudo-noir skullduggery pretty effectively; but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for his Robert Neville in The Omega Man. The first fifteen minutes--in which the intellectual Neville plays out his routine of solitude in a plague-ravaged and empty metropolis--sing thanks largely to Heston's nuanced (yes, nuanced) work. And even when the movie descends to action movie silliness in the last two-thirds, Heston still holds onto his dignity.

Will Penny (1968): Why this humble but affecting western isn't more highly-regarded is totally beyond me. As the title character, the actor displays a quiet sadness (and a surprising awkward streak) around pretty Joan Hackett, and the evolution of this pair's relationship represents one of the most moving romances ever presented in a period oater.

Airport 1975 (1974): No appreciation of Charlton Heston would be complete without a nod to the man's work as the Go-To Guy for Natural Disaster Rescue during the Me Decade. Some point to his demystified businessman (unceremoniously washed away in a flood) in 1974's Earthquake as his best disaster flick turn, but I'll put in my vote for Airport 1975's hotshot pilot Murdock every time. He's the kind of bourbon-swilling, casually sexist, utterly effective flyboy of which kitsch legend is made, and don't tell me Heston isn't having a high old time parodying his own steel-jawed persona here.

1 comment:

Stephanie M said...

"Ben Hur is the greatest film ever made; my father made me say that." is a phrase I have used continually over the years, but in my heart, it's true.