Film Flight

Heston, Underappreciated Again

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

Linda Harrison, on the other hand: That woman could act!

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