Heston, Underappreciated Again

Four years too late, Obit magazine gives Charlton Heston a sendoff that really isn't worthy of him. 

Kevin Nance breaks no new ground on the very dated consensus that Heston – on whose rock ribs a generation of conservatives, gun owners and bible-on-tape aficionados could rest their weary heads – was a wooden performer. There's the obligatory admission that Heston's Mexican cop in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil was one of his "better" parts, and the even more obligatory irony toward Heston's so-straight-it's-gay bearing, with which Gore Vidal and William Wyler allegedly had witty fun in Ben-Hur. (Emphasis on "allegedly." I've endured Ben-Hur all the way through, and it doesn't exactly sparkle with Noel Coward frothiness.) For Nance, Heston in his prime lacked the nuance and nervous energy of the method-acting mumblers who supposedly got uptight Hollywood to loosen up with their Soviet commitment to social realism. Instead, he got by on being a presence, a Hollywood star of the old school: 

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.” 

This was the Heston I knew — the cynical grownup of counterculture dystopias – and I still say his awesomeness knew no bounds. I also don't see what's so deficient in his performances in Major Dundee or The Naked Jungle or a bunch of other movies from his heyday. (Heston was less a product of Old Hollywood than a player in the first wave of runaway production, when massive movies were being shot overseas with low-wage crews and extras. Part of the reason he was never taken seriously was that he consistently worked in TV when that was still considered humble labor.) If Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments are leaden pictures, you can't blame that all on Heston, and several of his cast-of-thousands spectacles, notably 55 Days at Peking, are enjoyable slogs. As for his being rendered "passé" by sixties hipsters: Planet of the Apes was a massive blockbuster hit, which continues to spawn mind-expanding new products to this day, and in Heston's diaries it's clear he understood on the set that it had the potential to be an interesting piece of popular cinema. If he was a conservative in politics, Heston was notably forward in art, defending Sam Peckinpah (whose directing job on Major Dundee he saved) and Welles (who didn't exactly share his politics) when both were in bad odor with the movie industry. Nance says Heston made "a nuttily effective spokesman for the gun lobby." I'd say since his death the rest of America has moved closer to Heston's position on guns than he has to theirs. 

Just watch him emote over the death of Edward G. Robinson (another old pinko!) in a scene laced with horror, visual sarcasm and tragedy: 

Update: Read Reason's 1987 interview with Heston

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  • Pro Libertate||

    Heston had incredible screen presence and was a decent actor. Come on, it's a blast to watch him in almost anything he was in.

    You Heston haters! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

  • John||

    And don't forget Kartoom. He is great as Chinese Gordan.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I really like Heston's work, and if that's bad acting, then order me up some more.

  • dehaul||

    My favorite Heston movie is The Omega Man. I love that one!

    Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green are also great examples of his acting.

    He really only seemed to play a certain type of role but he played it really well. No one can quite do what he did - and he is always fun to watch.

  • John||

    Major Dundee is one of the best on screen portrayals of how cavalry actually fought. It actually shows them getting off their horses and moving tactically. Good movie. Heston and Richard Harris, what is not to love.

  • ||

    The best part is that Peckinpah pissed him off so bad that he supposedly charged Peckinpah from horseback, yet Heston still went to bat for Sam and saved his job.

  • John||

    No one who can make a movie as violent as The Wild Bunch is totally sane. I am thinking Pekinpah was a bit of a nut to work with.

  • ||

    I'm sure he was. He was also a drinker.

    Yet he was still a brilliant filmmaker.

  • John||

    Film directors of all things were total bad asses back them. Howard Hawks, William Wyler, Pekinpah, John Houston were all a bit nuts and total bad asses. Now we have James Cameron. The only living director fit to have a beer with those people is Warner Herzog.

  • Pro Libertate||

    No, there are other living directors who were great. They just aren't great now. Coppola being the usual example of that.

  • John||

    And Scorsese and Spielberg. Lucas was never a great director.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Agreed. Lucas did something really interesting with Star Wars, but I think he was never a great director.

  • John||

    There is always American Graffiti. That is still one of my favorite movies ever. Its existence and Lucas' creation of it is one of the most unexplainable things in the universe.

  • ||

    Spielberg was so good back in the day. I highly recommend doing something I did recently: go on an early Spielberg bender. You won't regret it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    If it doesn't involve semis chasing around Dennis Weaver, I don't want to hear about it.

  • ||

    John Landis, anyone?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Grossly underappreciated and awesome comic director.

  • ||

    This is why Landis is under-appreciated. It derailed his career.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Forgot about that--what a mess.

  • ||

    It derailed his career.

    I remember the Vic Morrow and children's helicopter accident. Huge deal in the entertainment smut rags. Landis must have been beyond heartbroken.

  • Paul.||

    If it doesn't involve semis chasing around Dennis Weaver, I don't want to hear about it.

    That movie needed more aliens.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Just who do you think was driving the semi?

  • SIV||

    Goldie Hawn she was trying to get her kids back

  • Pro Libertate||

    Maybe it was Kurt Russell. Did you know that he was on Gilligan's Island? I knew that a long time ago but was recently reminded.

  • John||

    I have always really liked Empire of the Sun a lot and Jaws and Sugarland Express and Close Encounters and the first two Indian Jones movies.

  • Loki||

    What, you mean just telling the actors "faster, more intense" isn't good directing?

  • ||

    Ah, the "Uwe Boll Directing Technique".

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm in the Herzog school. Hire insane actors. Use a pistol to enforce your will as necessary.

  • Ska||

    Who are you referring to, the dude from Aguirre?

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's one example when Werner has employed the weapon of directing. Not like Kinski wasn't batshit insane.

    "It was not a significant bullet."

  • ||

    He's referring to Klaus Kinski. How a crazy ugly motherfucker like Klaus could produce his daughter is beyond me.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Crazy can do anything. It's time you realize that.

  • PapayaSF||

    Luckily Nastassja got her looks (and then some) from her mother. But it is one of the mysteries of genetics.

  • Loki||

    NSFW. Label that shit, unless you're trying to get people fired.

  • Paul.||

    What, you mean just telling the actors "faster, more intense" isn't good directing?

    No, and no matter how many times I told my ex-wife that her directing sucked, she just kept yelling, "Faster! More intense!".

    God I don't miss marriage.

  • ||

    No, and no matter how many times I told my ex-wife that her directing sucked, she just kept yelling, "Faster! More intense!".

    That's because you had a deaf spot whenever she said,"To the left! Harch to the LEFT!"

    Meh. Method actors.

  • JW||

    His best work was his Salad Days work.

  • ||

    "Anyone for tennis? AIIIGGHHHHHHHH"

  • SIV||

    Fuckin' commies ruin everything. Particularly, film criticism.

  • JW||

    Keep your paws of Heston, you damn dirty reviewer!

  • ||

    "No..va" "No..va" "Nova"

    He got to act with some of the finest women on screen.

  • Chloe||

    I heard soylent green was people, was that rumor ever verified?

  • SIV||

    In the book by Harry Harrison it was soybeans and lentils. The movie fixed that.. I first learned of tilapia from Make Room Make Room too. Nobody ate it in America back then but it's the future now so we do.

  • Chloe||

    Soybeans and lentils, wheres the fun in that?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Soylent Green is bean by-product!

    Yeah, that doesn't work.

  • Ska||

    Soylent falafals might be good.

  • Pro Libertate||

    With some Soylent Hummus?

  • Chloe||

    As long as they're not from the Lebanese Taverna I went to in Tyson's Galleria. Those things were so dry I nearly choked.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Probably needed more human.

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    The "big mystery" wasn't that Soylent was people (SOY-LENTils), it was that the primary food chain was collapsing.

    Seems like a self-correcting problem to me.

    ... Hobbit

  • John||

    For all of its flaws, which would stands up better The Omega Man or I am Legend? No comparison. The Omega Man is still campy fun and entertaining as hell. I am Legend is none of that.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Omega Man does fall into campy fun, but Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes are both fine films, and Heston was great in both.

  • John||

    Absolutely. Look at how much better this original Planet of the Apes is to the remake. No even close. They had like $100 grand to make that movie. Hollywood today spends a hundred million and still can't match it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    They tried to tell stories back then a little more often. Now, Marketing and International Distribution are too involved. Though crap has always been a part of filmmaking.

  • PapayaSF||

    Now they have to water things down for the international market, so no clever dialog, clever cultural references, anything that might offend someone in China, etc. Plus moviegoers are young, and they generally don't want to see oldsters (i.e. 35+).

  • Tulpa the White||

    That's a bullshit excuse.

    Movie audiences were much younger in the 1950s and 1960s, and you can write a good story with international appeal. It's just cheaper not to bother.

  • PapayaSF||

    It's not my excuse, just what I've read.

  • Les||

    Writing about an actor's career is one thing.

    But when a writer (who's most likely never acted) pretends to know who's a good actor and who isn't (as opposed to which actors they do and don't enjoy), it's just pathetic.

  • JW||

    Nobody manhandles Dick Van Patten like that and gets away with it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I just re-watched the film, and that's the one really jarring moment. Whoa, I guess eight really was enough.

  • ||

    This is another example of giving a shit about what your entertainers' politics are. It creeps into everything, and causes people like this guy to write really stupid articles, because Chuck had different politics than him and he just cannot handle that.

    Enjoy being stupid, buddy.

  • PapayaSF||

    Yeah, if Heston had been a leftist we'd be reading about his masterfully understated style.

  • A Serious Man||

    Where's your free market now, libertarians?! /Edward G. Robinson

  • Pro Libertate||

    He was just superb in Soylent Green.

  • A Serious Man||

    Indeed, I read that Heston's sorrow when Robinson's character commits suicide was geunine grief because Heston knew that Robinson was terminally ill with cancer.

  • Paul.||

    Nance says Heston made "a nuttily effective spokesman for the gun lobby."

    I'm not sure what Nance is referring to, but what small bits and pieces of dialog I've heard Heston make about gun control weren't nutty at all, or were completely and forcefully mischaracterized by a one (1) Michael Moore.

  • John||

    He really lets his leftist moron show there. Heston was a great public speaker. That is how he got the job as head of the NRA. There was nothing "nutty" about him. Nance is just an idiot who thinks anyone who disagrees with him is "nutty".

  • PapayaSF||

    ^This.^

  • Fluffy||

    I really take issue with the statement here that Heston couldn't be funny.

    There's dark wit to his performances even as far back as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Granted, it's when he's Moses the Egyptian Prince and not when he's Moses the prophet, but the script doesn't ALLOW any humor once he's Moses the prophet.

    The funniest thing about SOYLENT GREEN, though, is still that the population of the US in the book - the population that's so out of control that nature is gone and we all eke out a living on soy rations - is...slightly less than the actual population now.

    We've got a higher population than the SOYLENT GREEN United States, but there are so many damn deer on my street at night it's not safe to drive.

  • John||

    Just a guess, but I think Heston could have pulled off the Leslie Neilson roles of the 1980s pretty well.

  • tarran||

    I thought his appearance on Saturday Night Live was hilarious - the skits where he played President Dexter.

  • Voros McCracken||

    Apparently when they were making Airplane, they told the veteran dramatic actors Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves to play it all completely straight.

  • John||

    That is what made the movies so funny.

  • PapayaSF||

    Indeed, that and the million gags (many old and stolen) they crammed in. (Ever notice that the jet airliner makes propeller-engine noise?) The whole movie holds up really well, except for a very few dated jokes that youngsters won't get (e.g. Howard Jarvis and Hare Krishnas in airports).

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yes, where have the Krishnas gone?

  • PapayaSF||

    Probably some combination of the bankruptcy of the organization, different recruiting tactics, and airport security.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Good observation John. Never thought of that.

  • ||

    There's definitely dark wit in The Omega Man as well.

  • Paul.||

    What's funny is I just did a text search on this thread, and no one has mentioned his performance in True Lies.

  • Cytotoxic||

    He was in TL?

  • Virginian||

    He was the head of agency. My first exposure to him. Watched that when I was like 10 maybe and asked who the cool old guy was. My Dad kind of sighed and shook his head.

  • Paul.||

    re: linda harrison... nothing like hot chicks in 'cave-man' garb.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-gAah.....-large.jpg

  • Syd Henderson||

    One of my favorite Heston bits was as the Player King in Branagh's "Hamlet." He was really having a lot of fun in that role.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I forgot that one. His was one of the few cameos in that mostly good film that didn't annoy me.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Is it just me, or lately do people rip on Heston for "Touch of Evil"....because he's "not really Mexican", or something? I don't get it.

    Finally saw the movie - typically wonderful Orson. But I thought Heston was good.

    Not quite as enjoyable as "Planet" or "Omega Man" (which is NEVER on TV it seems - I love that movie)....but ACTIIIIIING.

    Love Heston. Fuck the playa haters.

  • Tulpa the White||

    It's the same people who rip Elvis for being a racist. Because he was white and Southern and did better than Chuck Berry.

  • MOFO.||

    motherfucking Midway. That was a good Heston flick.

  • Stevo Darkly||

    Who could ever forget Heston's magnificent turn in Wayne's World 2, in which his acting magnificence was explicitly acknowledged?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....re=related

  • Curtisls87||

    I was wondering all the way through this thread if someone would mention this. He was sublime in that cameo.

  • Stevo Darkly||

    Also, Star Trek: The Next Generation would have been a magnificent TV series, with a worthy successor to Captain Kirk, had only Heston been cast in the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

    Imagine that, my friends. How glorious that would have been.

    "Sokath, his eyes uncovered!"

  • MFleming||

    Tne entire article and 88 comments before a mention of Chuck's early championing of civil rights? Few people have such an enviable record for championing liberty.

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