Rest In Peace, Charlton Heston

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My brother Brendan and I watched The Ten Commandments on the night before Easter, and expressed amazement, for the 100th time, how incredible Heston is, how inevitable. I mean, how silly could that entire undertaking have been? Come to think of it, there is something supremely silly about Edward G. Robinson running around in a toga. It’s awesome! But even today, lulled to sleep by CGI effects, there is something stunning and terrifying about the Red Sea parting, well done! – but none of it would matter a whit if it weren’t for Heston’s commanding (pun) performance. He had no fear. He embodied courage, and was able to portray it larger than life. This is something NO actors have today – NONE – it is no longer the “style” of acting, and no longer in vogue. And that’s fine. Things don’t have to stay the same forever. But at least we could look back at one of the greats and say, “Ah. There. That is how it was done. That is how it should have been done.” His performances do not date themselves. I also liked him very much in the otherwise somewhat ridiculous Any Given Sunday. Seeing him show up in that plush skybox, with his cynical mutterings, and leering undeniable gravitas – was like suddenly seeing reality show up in that over-produced mess. And watching Cameron Diaz try to act with the man was like watching a flea try to compete with a gorilla. Nice shot, dear. Try again. She wasn’t bad in that movie, she was perfectly cast, I thought … but Heston walking in that room made everyone around him seem transparent, insubstantial.

When Charlton Heston first announced that he had the onset of Alzheimer’s, an outpouring of tributes emerged. A wonderful thing – I do hope he read them, and got a chance to understand, before the disease got his brain, how much he still meant to so many.

The most stunning tribute of all, it takes my breath away to this day, is Richard Dreyfuss’ tribute. He wrote it for National Review – obviously a publication with political leanings that has nothing to do with who Richard Dreyfuss is, and how he votes. But, as I have said repeatedly on my blog, as I have chased people away from my site who seem constitutionally unable to play by my rules, as I have stated in my comment policy: when you are dealing with art, and the appreciation thereof, politics must take a backseat. At least if you want to have a worthwhile conversation. And then there are those who say, “I liked Charlton Heston’s acting BECAUSE of his politics” and that is just as idiotic. His work transcends. He was an actor, first and foremost, a “great pretender”. So talk about his work, please – there is plenty there to keep us chatting for 100 years at least! Nobody “owns” Charlton Heston. Nobody “owns” John Wayne. The most flaming liberal in the world could appreciate and love Red River, and those who put politics at the forefront are completely missing the point. What we are talking about here is love. And these actors who touch us, who get beneath our skins, who create something indelible … transcend all of that. The editors at National Review knew that, and so did Richard Dreyfuss.

His tribute of Charlton Heston is what I first ran to, today, when I heard the news that Charlton Heston had passed away. Bless Dreyfuss for putting it so eloquently into print.

And rest in peace, great American icon. You will not be forgotten.

He’s Not Moses, but He’s Something Else
My tribute to Charlton Heston.

By Richard Dreyfuss

I am shy around movie stars. True, if odd. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and all I can think to say is I loved you in … So it is with Charlton Heston.

In his presence I seem to nod idiotically like one of these doggies in the back of rear windows of cars. He always tries to make my agonies a bit smaller since he is such a gentleman. We’ve talked about children and gun control but usually it’s hopeless and I just end up trying not to stare.

It’s a serious and silly business, acting. Grown people running around pretending the clothes they’re wearing are their own, pretending the words they’re saying are their own, pretending that they’re not pretending. That stuff can really make you feel silly if you’re not careful. A thousand times more silly if you’re wearing a toga or staring offstage at a burning bush that isn’t there. But as silly as it might be at times, acting has awesome power to mirror our reality and give shape to our best and most noble pictures of ourselves.

When I was a kid and yearning to act, there were scads of actors whose work I admired and tried to emulate: (Spencer) Tracy and (Charles) Laughton, Paul Muni, Irene Dunne, and Jimmy Cagney. There were also Errol Flynn and John Wayne and Charlton Heston.

I thought, being cocky, that I could be something like Tracy, something like Cagney, something like Laughton (well maybe not Laughton). I watched them all. I knew I would never be as sexy as Flynn, never as heroic as Wayne, never as mythic as Heston. I never thought for a minute I could be like Heston.

There are some performances that could not possibly be acted by anyone other than who played them. Even though we hear stories about (Ronald) Reagan being cast in Casablanca, we know in our gut it just couldn’t be right, couldn’t happen. God gave Bogart the role. God gave John Wayne Red River. And God cast Charlton Heston as Moses. And Ben Hur. God I think cast Heston as God, because (if I’m not mistaken) his voice is the voice of God in the Ten Commandments, playing against himself. They say Cecil B. DeMille did the voice, but it sounds like Heston to me. I believe it anyway. Makes a better story.

Millions of Jewish kids grew up with the confusion that A) Charlton Heston was Moses B) Charlton Heston was not Jewish. I believe that films like Ben Hur were conceived because Heston was there to make them. He allowed these stories to be told because he was there to play the parts. Ben Hur starring Robert Montgomery. (Please.) Tyrone Power as Moses. (I don’t think so.) With all due respect, and I have loads of that, Heston is inescapable. He was necessary. There would be no Chariot Race worth its salt without him. I would never watch Heston on TV because he was too big. It would be like watching the promos to the Incredible Hulk, with the giant bursting through his shirt. He was too big for television. TV is small, it’s manageable, it’s less. Heston was almost too big for the 20th century, let alone TV. But in the darkened mysterioso of the movie theatre, Charlton Heston was “just right.”

When I saw Charlton Heston as a kid, he took me far, far away, to places few actors could go. The only other American actor so comfortable outside of this era was Wayne, and Heston could time travel farther. Both held the magical alchemy that made me forget the commonplace of here and now completely. John Wayne allowed us into our American past. Heston, because of his perfectly male face, the depth of his voice, the measured almost antique rhythm of his speech, the oddly innocent commitment that allowed him to dive without looking into the role, took me farther, before the common era, as they say.

Somehow he was able to cut the myriad strings that connect us to our current lives, so he could inhabit our imagined past and imagined future so perfectly. So well did he do this that his discomfort was obvious when he played in the Now (actually, make that my discomfort, because he more than likely had a ball in the rare instances when he played something current). If it wasn’t the past it was the future. I could never have gotten to Ancient Rome without him, nor Ape City.

Is so and so a great actor? A good actor? A bad actor? Speaking as an expert it’s a stupid question. The actor either gets you to where you have to go, or not. Heston did; priceless. He could portray greatness, which is no longer an artistic goal; he could portray a grandeur that was so satisfying. What he was able to personify so perfectly for us was a vision of ourselves called heroic. Is this out of favor? Out of step? Antique? Yes, antique as in gorgeous, incredibly valuable, and not produced anymore but this is a critique of the world, not him (hopefully we will one day come back to all that).

As someone who has seen Ben Hur two million times I am totally grateful.

Self-consciousness is the anticipation of being silly and often is the spoiler for many actors. Charlton Heston had no such problem. He would dive into the story with what I can only call measured abandon and make me believe. And it was fun watching him.

It has become fashionable to characterize his politics; almost as if his politics were a separate thing, like Diana’s popularity. People are either defensive or patronizing (if not contemptuous). I can only say I wish all the liberals and all the conservatives I knew had the class and forbearance he has. Would I be as patient or serene when so many had showed me such contempt, or tried to make me feel stupid or small? I doubt it, truly I do. This is dignity, simply and completely. A much more important quality than political passion at the end of the day, and far more lacking, don’t you think?

It is a terrible, terrible, terrible thing that Charlton Heston is going through this (earlier this month, Heston announced he had been diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease), but I confess that there is a part of my heart where I am grateful for the opportunity to let him know what he’s meant to me.

It will make him smile that I’m writing this on National Review’s website (among other publications). Come to think of it, it is kind of funny.

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And here’s a nice tribute from The Onion’s AV Club. I particularly liked this part:

Above all, Heston was an actor. His performances never let viewers forget this. He had little use for subtlety but a great flair for operatic emotions. Few have equaled him for this. Heston was already a man out of time in an era that had begun to favor the nuance of Method performers but he had a gift for command that made the shift in fashion seem irrelevant, if not wrongheaded. Other actors could have cursed the skies and damned mankind for destroying itself at the end of Planet Of The Apes. But try to picture anyone else bringing Heston’s ferocity and conviction to the moment and you’ll probably draw a blank.

Amen. Rest in peace.

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18 Responses to Rest In Peace, Charlton Heston

  1. mitch says:

    I always turn to you at times like this, Sheila. And you never disappoint.

    Off to rent Ben Hur.

  2. red says:

    And you never disappoint.

    What a totally nice thing to say. Thank you!!

    One of my regrets is that I have not yet seen Ben Hur on the big screen – and I just can only imagine that it is an entirely different movie when you see it HUGE!! It’s meant to be seen in a massive movie palace, you know??

    Have fun!

  3. Thanks for that Dreyfuss piece, Sheila. It gives me a whole new light on Dreyfuss, as well. Heston never overwhelmed me as an actor, but he did enough varied work to make me realize that Hollywood did not typecast him as much as some critics and politically leaning writers did. He was one of the last of the larger-than-life figures that we once insisted on as movie stars. Trivia: Now, the only pre-1960 Best Actor Oscar winner alive is…Ernest Borgnine.

    By the way, I’ve got a Heston question on my site, if any of your readers are interested. (See, I have no qualms about shameless self/cross-promotion!)

  4. red says:

    Larry – ha! I should stop having those qualms, huh?

    I like what you say about “larger-than-life figures that we once insisted on as movie stars.” Very nice.

    Go check out Larry’s great site, peeps!

  5. GCCR says:

    I too want to thank you so much for the Dreyfus piece. I seldom see eye to eye with him, but he’s always come across as someone with which you can disagree but still enjoy a conversation.

    In more shameless self-promotion, I’ve posted my own obit of Heston focusing in on my favorite part of his personna. Not the heros, but the anti-heros (bastards) that he’s played (and played so well).

  6. I have nothing to promote (unless someone is interested in looking at Heston’s picture and a few words on my sidebar) I just wanted to say how much I loved Heston. I wrote this on Arbogast’s page this morning in his comment section: “I never do obits but damn, I loved his sci-fi movies. It’s part of the reason I became such a fan of sci-fi in the first place. And I’ll be damned, but I really loved his stoic style of acting. Politics be damned, he was a great guy!”

    I naively thought there would be no show of love on the blogs for Heston given his non-naturalistic style of acting and his politics. Once again I underestimated the world of movie bloggers. And I am so happy to discover I did.

    I can’t get enough of The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man or Soylent Green. I think I’ll watch them all again this week.

    Great tribute Sheila.

  7. red says:

    Jonathan – no pressure or anything, but I would love to read a full post about your experience of Charlton Heston and what he means to you. Again, no pressure – but I’d love to hear it!

    I’m loving the comments – and also that you all are busting me on my “no self-promotion” thing. Thank you!!

  8. tracey says:

    /Heston, because of his perfectly male face, the depth of his voice, the measured almost antique rhythm of his speech, the oddly innocent commitment that allowed him to dive without looking into the role, took me farther, before the common era, as they say./

    That’s it, exactly, for me. That “innocent commitment.” No, he certainly didn’t have the nuance of a Method actor, but his commitment to the world of his movies seems no less to me. On the face of it, you could say he was in some pretty outlandish movies. Burning bushes? Chariot races? Talking apes? But because he so completely accepts it — and even elevates it — we do too. We accept the world. We elevate the world AND the memory of it. He’s not hiding some cynicism or contempt or incredulity about the material. At least, I’ve never felt that about his performances. He’s innocent, as Dreyfuss says. He was never self-conscious when it could have been SO easy to be self-conscious. As you said, Sheila, his acting is no longer the style, but I think the movies he did — his iconic movies — almost required the kind of performances he gave. Lofty, stylized. I couldn’t picture Brando as Ben-Hur or Montgomery Clift as Moses.

    “He WAS necessary.”

    That is so true. I will miss knowing he’s around. I will miss the idea of someone like him being in the world.

  9. tracey says:

    And may I say I love him in “El Cid”? With Sophia Loren, the whole movie is basically gorgeousness on parade.

  10. Kate P says:

    Sheila, you are so deft at pinpointing actors’ skills sometimes–and this is definitely one of them. Great post.

    (Not to go too far OT but I agree with you about the big screen experience of certain movies; I’m grateful that I live close to an “art” theater that recently completed renovations on their auditorium and it is “palatial.” Shakespeare this month, yeah!)

  11. Ken says:

    Richard Dreyfuss’s…pre-elegy? is beautifully done. And that Onion AV Club quote, “operatic,” is pitch-perfect.

    I just had an idea: Ben-Hur in IMAX. Or would that be too gimmicky?

  12. red says:

    Ken – I love gimmicks! I wish it would happen!

  13. Doug Puthoff says:

    I’ve only seen bits and pieces of “The Ten Commandments,” but I loved him in “The Big Country” and Ben-Hur. And “The Greatest Show on Earth” is a guilty pleasure of mine.

  14. Campaspe says:

    He was really one of the great stars; the outpouring around the Web has been amazing. Thanks for sharing the wonderful Dreyfuss piece.

    I have to say, that although he will most certainly be remembered for those mammoth widescreen adventures, it’s the smaller films he did that I treasure. And The Big Country. Daaaaamn he was sex personified in that movie.

  15. Sheila, thanks so much for sharing that Dreyfuss piece and for expressing so well what so many of us feel about the way politics and art ought (and oughtn’t) interact. Heston was a great star, despite what you or I or anyone else might have made of him as a political being. And what star can we NOT say that about? I’m as liberal as I’ve ever been, yet some of the things I hear coming out of (insert favorite Hollywood liberal here)’s mouth sometimes make me cringe.

    Also, I discovered in coming here today that my link to your site has been screwed up for God’s knows how long. My humble apologies. The Maytag Man has taken care of it!

  16. amelie says:

    thank you for sharing this piece, sheila, and for your observations. spot-on as usual.

    now i’m gonig to go miss me some judah ben-hur.

  17. red says:

    Dennis – I always love when you show up on my site. Thanks for the kind words about this piece – it seems like the Dreyfuss essay was something a lot of people needed to hear.

  18. nightfly says:

    I’ve often wondered what Charlton Heston thought of the many goofs of his most iconic moments in film: from Homer realizing that the Planet of the Apes was Earth and howling “Damn you all to HELLLL!” to the commercial featuring “Ben Hur” done by third graders. (That nine-year old in glasses saying “Keep your hate, Judah Ben-Hur. Hate keeps a man alive” slays me every time.) It’s probably just projection, but I like to think that he enjoyed those moments; that he wasn’t above laughing from time to time at being THE Charlton Heston. I hope he knew that they were meant in love, thanking him for all that he gave to us.

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