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LawrenceA

The Problem with Charlton Heston

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Charlton Heston was born in 1923 in Illinois. The exact town is a little uncertain, as there are differing accounts, just as there about his name. Some sources say he was christened John Charles Carter, others as Charlton J. Carter Jr. Even Heston himself was uncertain, as he was about many details of his early life (perhaps a grim precursor to the disease that would afflict his later life). After his father died, his mother remarried and Charlton took the name Heston from his new stepfather. He was enamored of acting from an early age, even making his film debut at age 18 in an amateur production of Peer Gynt

 

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Heston went to Northwestern University on a drama scholarship. It was there that he met his wife, Lydia. They remained married for 64 years. Soon after the wedding, in 1944, Heston joined the US Army Air Force, where he served as both a radio operator and tail gunner aboard bombers. After the war, Heston and his wife moved to New York City, where they both got work in the theater. Charlton made enough of an impression to get roles in several live TV productions. These parts lead to his proper film debut, in 1950's Dark City. The film didn't make much of an impression at the time, and when Heston was next cast as the rugged boss in Cecil B. DeMille's circus epic, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth, there was some printed commentary noting the "acting skill of the circus boss", whom the reviewers assumed was an actual circus boss!

 

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The success of that film launched Heston into film stardom, and he headlined a number of films in the proceeding years, such as Ruby Gentry, The President's Lady, Arrowhead, The Naked Jungle, Secret of the Incas, The Far Horizons, and more. His next major screen triumph would come from his reteaming with DeMille in 1956's mammoth production The Ten Commandments. Cast in the lead role of Moses, Heston would pitch his performance to the back row  It would become one of his most recognized roles, even if Yul Brynner almost steals the movie away from him.

 

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Heston appeared in a few more notable films soon thereafter: 1958's Touch of Evil and that same year's western epic The Big Country. Both would be dwarfed (commercially, anyway) by Heston's next turn in a religious epic, 1959's Ben-Hur. His performance in the title role garnered him an Oscar as Best Actor, and cemented his status as the King of the Epics.

 

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His film career continued to thrive, with roles in El Cid, 55 Days in Peking, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Major Dundee, The War Lord, and Khartoum. During this time, Heston became more involved politically. He had endorsed Democratic candidates in the past, but always leaned more to the center and the right than the left. He did work hard to help the Civil Rights cause, an effort that he was proud of for the rest of his life. In 1965 he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, a position he held until 1971. During this time he was also an unlikely supporter of gun control. Heston continued to act in films regularly, including the science fiction classic from 1968, Planet of the Apes.

 

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The inevitable decline in quality began for Heston in the 1970's. He appeared in some notable films, like The Omega Man, Soylent Green and the Richard Lester Musketeer films, but even his big-budget films, while occasionally successful, weren't treated well critically. Earthquake, Airport 1975, Skyjacked, Two-Minute Warning, Midway and Gray Lady Down are a few of the titles that haven't aged gracefully. During the 1970's, Heston drifted politically more to the right, endorsing Nixon in '72 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. The 1980's proved to be a slow time for Heston on screen, and it wasn't really until the 1990's that his status as an elder statesman of film saw him getting more roles, often in TV productions such as his turns as Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood and as Long John Silver in a lavish TNT version of Treasure Island.

 

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Heston continued to work in film and television from the 1990's until 2003, but his main focus turned to the political arena. He became more and more conservative, particularly in regards to a perceived assault on the second amendment and the right to bear arms. He formed a private political action committee to raise funds for pro-gun candidates, and began working closely with the National Rifle Association, a political lobbying group on behalf of the nation's gun manufacturers. Heston became their most visible proponent, and was elected president of the organization in 1998. It was during this time that my problem with Heston began.  He was an actor I enjoyed watching most of my life, not one of my absolute favorites, but someone whose work I checked out when it was around. His vocal political stances began to alter the way I felt about him, and subsequently, his previous film work. It's an issue that occurs with certain performers, when their off-screen pursuits cast a pall over their on-screen work. I've tried to keep the two separate in my mind, but I find it harder to do with Heston than just about any one else, including John Wayne. There was something about Heston's bombastic pomposity that made him seem as if he was operating under the delusion that he actually was Moses, come to bring the wrath of a pro-gun God down upon gun-control sinners. When Heston made a public declaration of his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 2002, my views on him softened a bit, and I was sad to see him depart in 2008, although it did bring him peace from that terrible affliction. I have continued to seek out and watch Heston's films, but I must admit, when he starts to get loud and self-righteous in one of his films, I hear echoes of that tone-deaf speech he gave not long after the massacre at Columbine, "FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS!!!"

 

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Charlton Heston had the brawny physique and hyper-masculine persona that made him ideal for action films and epics. Paradoxically, in his heart he was an actor's actor, and he longed to perform in classic drama and be taken seriously as an interpreter of Shakespeare and the like. Not long before his mainstream film debut in 1950's Dark City, he appeared in an independent movie production of Julius Caesar. He shepherded another film version of the tale with 1970's Julius Caesar, and directed the 1972 version of Antony and Cleopatra. He even appeared as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's lavish 1996 production of Hamlet

 

I have seen 44 of the 86 films that Charlton Heston appeared in. My favorites include:

 

Planet of the Apes

The Ten Commandments

Ben-Hur

The Omega Man

Touch of Evil

Soylent Green

The Big Country

55 Days at Peking

The Naked Jungle

Major Dundee

 

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Nice write-up, Larry. I think his film output slowed in the 80s because he signed a contract with Aaron Spelling Productions for television ventures. He ended up doing two years as the lead on Spelling's Dynasty clone, The Colbys opposite Stephanie Beacham and Barbara Stanwyck.

Personally, his right-wing politics are irrelevant to me. It's the same as radical left-wingers. Anytime a star goes too far away from the center and thinks they need to use their celebrity to tell others how to vote or behave, I feel they cross the line. They're entertainers first. And if we just look at what they've accomplished in entertainment, usually that's enough.

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I agree, TopBilled, and I always try to remove the off-screen antics from any appreciation of a performer's on-screen work. I'm usually successful at it. I still enjoy John Wayne and his films, despite my political disagreements. But like I said in my OP, with Heston it has been harder, and I can't quite explain why. Maybe it has to do with the amount of time elapsed. Wayne has been gone for nearly 40 years, but Heston's pro-gun crusade was less than 20 years ago. I still watch his films, and I have more waiting to be watched on tape, as well as several on Amazon Prime.

 

One thing I was hoping to discuss with this week's Heston piece was the issue of separating the screen from real-life, and why it may work for some people and not as much with others.

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On 6/15/2016 at 9:28 AM, LawrenceA said:

I agree, TopBilled, and I always try to remove the off-screen antics from any appreciation of a performer's on-screen work. I'm usually successful at it. I still enjoy John Wayne and his films, despite my political disagreements. But like I said in my OP, with Heston it has been harder, and I can't quite explain why. Maybe it has to do with the amount of time elapsed. Wayne has been gone for nearly 40 years, but Heston's pro-gun crusade was less than 20 years ago. I still watch his films, and I have more waiting to be watched on tape, as well as several on Amazon Prime.

 

One thing I was hoping to discuss with this week's Heston piece was the issue of separating the screen from real-life, and why it may work for some people and not as much with others.

I have the reverse problem with some of these stars because I am a moderate Republican. When they go too much to the left, it makes me not want to look at their films or TV shows. I feel like I am indirectly supporting their views and inherent propaganda if I watch too much of their stuff. I can see where someone more liberal would have a similar situation with Heston and others very much to the right. 

But in some cases, the films or TV programs were made long before the actor in question became identified as overtly political. And ultimately the entertainment has to stand on its own, regardless of who's in it or what point of view is being pushed on to the public.

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One of the interesting things about Heston as an actor is that even though one might think some (by no means all) of his work in The Ten Commandments is over the top, it's difficult to think of other actors who would have had as much charisma in the part. An actor playing Moses or some of the other strong leaders Heston played cannot finesse the role; either you have that intensely masculine force or you don't, and most actors don't.

 

Heston did take acting seriously, and he had a very attractive voice. Of course his shirtless appeal won him a lot of fans, too.

 

The major part of Heston's film career was over when he began to be a political figure, which is different from Jane Fonda, who became a controversial political figure in mid-career, or Vanessa Redgrave, a controversial political figure pretty much from the time she began to be well-known as a film actress.

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One of the interesting things about Heston as an actor is that even though one might think some (by no means all) of his work in The Ten Commandments is over the top, it's difficult to think of other actors who would have had as much charisma in the part. An actor playing Moses or some of the other strong leaders Heston played cannot finesse the role; either you have that intensely masculine force or you don't, and most actors don't.

 

I agree, I think Heston earned his title as King of the Epics precisely for that reason. I think he fit perfectly with DeMille's grandiosity, as he was able to deliver dialogue that would sound corny or ridiculous coming out of other performers' mouths, and make it sound as if he genuinely believed in it. Of course, that same quality made him a prime target for comedians and impressionists.

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My favourite Heston performances are ...

 

Touch of Evil (1958)

The Big Country (1958)

Ben-Hur (1959)

Khartoum (1966)

Will Penny (1968)

The Three Musketeers (1973)

The Four Musketeers (1974)

Hamlet (1996)

 

And for pure fun there is of course, Planet of the Apes, Ten Commandments, "etc. etc." - oops, wrong Yul Brynner movie.

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On 6/15/2016 at 12:37 AM, LawrenceA said:

The Problem with Charlton Heston

is that he couldn't act worth a ****.

A one-note movie star who couldn't do subtlety to save his life. Always went too big and played the same sober-sides wood-face every time. Hard to say which was the worse actor - Heston or John Wayne

Would never be able to make it now - they expect you to be able to act nowadays. Just baring your chest and hollering doesn't get it done anymore.

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I recall going to a second run cinema in Toronto in the late '60s to see Heston as Will Penny. It's a quiet, contemplative little western, with an unexpectedly sensitive performance by the actor. It's not typical Heston, by any means, but it shows what he was capable of doing as a performer when he wasn't so "big" on screen. He brings a quiet strength to his characterization of an aging loner cowpoke who doesn't have that much of a future.

 

The film also has fine work by Joan Hackett and, on the wild side and bigger than life, Donald Pleasance as a scalphunter. If Heston represents the decency that can be found in man in this film, then Pleasure is surely representative of the dark side.

 

Actually, I prefer the film when Pleasance not gobbling up the scenery and it is concentrating on the interaction between Heston and Hackett, as a widow, and her son.

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LawrenceA--replying to your post of June 15th, 12:28 p.m.--I  dislike (the most polite term) Heston because of his speech where he said (I'm paraphrasing) "They'll have to take my gun out of my cold, dead hands..." when he campaigned against gun control at the 2000 Republican National Convention (the speech is listed  on YouTube by multiple posters).  The language made me ill then, and is nauseating now, In My Opinion.

 

Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan & Cecil B. DeMille all were right wing, politically, but none of them bother me, in terms of separating the person from the film persona.

 

Heston is the only star whose films I avoid watching.

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I grew up with his campy disaster-movie performances in the 70's, so by his 80's Reagan-era NRA days, I'd thought he was a ham who'd left the planet for good.

 

Until he turned around and stole Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet with the best five-minute speech in the whole celebrity stunt-cast thing.  All four hours of it. 

Okay, whatever he had in the 50's, he'd still got it.

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Would never be able to make it now - they expect you to be able to act nowadays. Just baring your chest and hollering doesn't get it done anymore.

Uh. what? Lololololol

180 degrees opposite from reality. This is no era where acting is demanded, what are you talkin' about?

I can "agree to disagree" with anyone about the quality of Hest's acting but this latter statement in the post, is preposterous.

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The thing about Heston is that many of the dozens of films he appeared in, called exactly for the kind of acting he could effortlessly deliver. When occasion demanded, he more than proved he could deliver different styles of acting. But most of his flicks simply called for a rugged, stolid, tight-lipped hero. So blame the era that he thrived in, but don't blame him.

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On 6/17/2016 at 4:17 AM, darkblue said:

is that he couldn't act worth a ****.

A one-note movie star who couldn't do subtlety to save his life. Always went too big and played the same sober-sides wood-face every time. Hard to say which was the worse actor - Heston or John Wayne

Would never be able to make it now - they expect you to be able to act nowadays. Just baring your chest and hollering doesn't get it done anymore.

Well, you said what I was going to say. Besides that I thought he was a pretty poor actor I also thought he seemed kind of dense outside of his acting roles. I remember when some people in the 1960's said they hoped he'd run for president someday and I thought "Oh gee, no please don't let an actor become president." Well, you can see what happened with that with another actor so my nightmare came true.

I will agree though that visually he looked great in costume parts but other than that, he was as wooden as Howdy Doody in a role.

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I do not think the movie Diamond Head was mentioned, probably for good reason. It was awful.

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3 minutes ago, Thenryb said:

I do not think the movie Diamond Head was mentioned, probably for good reason. It was awful.

I think I have a recording of that in my "To Watch" stack of movies.

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The Cole Man said:

Quote

I will agree though that visually he looked great in costume parts but other than that, he was as wooden as Howdy Doody in a role.

The same thing has been said about Gregory Peck, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, David Hemmings. Some of the biggest stars ever. It just doesn't go very far when you look at the variety of his roles and films. Heston sure isn't James Dean, but the guy was practically the spine of Hollywood in his time.

I generally like your taste in flicks from what I've read so far G-Man, but reckon I cain't side with yuh on this 'un! Gotta part trails witcha here...

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20 hours ago, Sgt_Markoff said:

The Cole Man said:

The same thing has been said about Gregory Peck, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, David Hemmings. Some of the biggest stars ever. It just doesn't go very far when you look at the variety of his roles and films. Heston sure isn't James Dean, but the guy was practically the spine of Hollywood in his time.

I generally like your taste in flicks from what I've read so far G-Man, but reckon I cain't side with yuh on this 'un! Gotta part trails witcha here...

I think it's good we don't agree on everything otherwise people would think we were separated sybaritic twins, and having been also in the military you of course would be my superior, the Upper G.I. Twin and I would be the Lower G.I., Sarge.

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On 6/15/2016 at 12:28 PM, LawrenceA said:

One thing I was hoping to discuss with this week's Heston piece was the issue of separating the screen from real-life, and why it may work for some people and not as much with others.

I think it's easier to dismiss some actors' foibles than others depending on the "offense" itself and public/personal opinion.

I think Woody Allen's treatment of women & children is deplorable. I can usually still watch a Woody Allen film without issue, unless there is negative treatment of women or children condoned within the story. The reason I think, is because the women in his life had a choice as to accept his behaviour or not. I certainly wouldn't have kept his secret like Mia Farrow did.

Although I think Walter Brennan's racist attitude is awful, it was accepted by many in "his time". I wish more people realized how wrong they were, but you can't change the past. I can watch Brennan in a movie because he's often just a bit player. 

I think Heston's problem is his gun enthusiasm was just arrogant & wrong, and he was over-the-top promoting it. With all of the tragedies due to  lack-of-gun-conrol, in retrospect, he just comes across as an idiotic baffoon. That said, if his role in a movie does not touch on the subject, it's still watchable.

What do you think, Lawrence?

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4 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

What do you think, Lawrence?

I agree pretty much with everything you say. I personally usually disregard private life stuff when watching movies or television, with some exceptions. I don't think I can ever look at Bill Cosby again the same way, for example, but I don't have a problem watching Roman Polanski's films, chiefly since he's not on screen in most of them. 

With Heston, his later life antics have sullied his rep with me to an extent. As a kid I liked him in several movies, but seeing them now is a different experience, as it's hard to separate his tone-deaf NRA statements and his holier-than-thou religious posturing in his later life from his earlier performances, where he often came across as pompous and self-righteous. The same can be said for later actors like Jon Voight or James Woods, both of whose earlier work I greatly admired, but both of which have descended into very vocal right-wing lunacy in their old age.

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I never place too many expectations for intellectual chops on any American actor. Movie-stars are hardly the best or the brightest sector of the population, after all. They're really farther down towards being near the worst. Egomaniacs; greedy, grasping, insecure. Leading the pampered lives of show-ponies. Fawned on.

So when they gravitate towards politics I tend to feel they're simply behaving childishly; reverting to the same manic need for fame and attention which made them performers in the first place.

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I'm pretty sure Temple University in predominantly black North Philadelphia --which is Cosby's alma mater and the recipient of phenomenal largesse from him in the form of endowments, scholarships, & campus/community development programs--still feels very proud of their famous alum and all the good work he's done. He's legendary in that part of the city, he is highly honored, and I'm sure that's going to remain true. That is, unless someone somehow proves he killed and ate white babies in the Ugandan-Tanzania War '72 or something.

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Graham Daseler on Marc Eliot's biography, from the October 11, 2017 Times Literary Supplement:

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/charlton-heston-daseler/

Charlton Heston was not a protean performer, like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, playing someone new in every film: to see one Heston performance is, more or less, to see them all. He didn’t play romance especially well. Humour seemed to be completely beyond him (a deficit that, oddly enough, made him perfect for the role of Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s campy adaptation of TheThree Musketeers). As with John Wayne, there is something feline about him. Yet whereas Wayne is ever at ease – a lion stalking unchallenged across the savanna – Heston is the opposite, always tense, like a caged tiger waiting to spring free. This is, one suspects, why directors so often put him in chains, whether as a prisoner at the court of Rameses in The Ten Commandments (1956), a galley slave in Ben-Hur (1959), a human caught in an inverted zoo in Planet of the Apes (1968), or the captive of albino zombies in The Omega Man (1971).

What Heston lacked in versatility, he made up for in his status as an icon. Thomas Jefferson, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), Andrew Jackson, Moses, Michelangelo and Gordon of Khartoum – these were the sort of men he portrayed. One reason he couldn’t, like Brando or Newman, play anyone is that he didn’t seem like just anyone. He was too big for that. “If God came to earth”, a journalist once quipped, “most moviegoers wouldn’t believe it unless he looked like Charlton Heston.” Even at its most subdued, his voice rumbles. During the making of The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille did not know at first whom to use for the voice of God, until it struck him that the right man was already on set. When Moses speaks to the Almighty, in the scene of the burning bush, it is Heston’s own voice that answers back.

Heston was born John Charles Carter on October 4, 1923. (Charlton is what his mother took to calling him as a boy; the “Heston” he picked up later from his stepfather.) He grew up in Michigan, where his father worked in a sawmill. It was a Nick Adams-like childhood, full of hunting, fishing and tramping through the woods. All his life, Heston would idealize his early boyhood, writing, over sixty years later, of “the great mossy cathedrals of hundred-foot pines” near his home and of splitting logs into “stacks of sweet-smelling kindling” so his mother could cook dinner. Then, when he was ten, his parents divorced. His mother remarried and, after a series of moves, they ended up in Chicago, where Heston, a country bumpkin to the other children, felt awkward and out of place. He didn’t see his father again for ten years. Marc Eliot, in his biography, Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s last icon, makes the case that this divorce was the central event in Heston’s life. “The little boy lost everything”, Eliot writes, “his dog, his beloved woods, his real dad, even his name.”

Possibly as a result of that divorce, Heston clung tightly to his own wife and children. He was married to the same woman for sixty-four years, almost always took his family with him when he went on location, and preferred nights at home with his children to Hollywood parties. One need only turn to his acting journals to see what an adoring husband and father he was, even if he could at times be rather self-congratulatory about it. “I doubt if I can be both a family man and a totally dedicated artist”, he mused in one entry. “I’d rather be the former.” And yet it was his parents’ divorce that also drove him to be an actor: “What acting offered me was the chance to be many other people. In those days, I wasn’t satisfied being me . . . . Kids of divorced parents always feel that way – that, on some subconscious level, they’re responsible”.

Not particularly popular in school – “shy, skinny, short, pimply, and ill-dressed” is how he would later describe his adolescent self – he was, by his own admission, a lonely and self-loathing teenager. Then one day, on a lark, he tagged along with a friend who was trying out for a school play. That, Heston would later write, was when “I began my life”. He met his wife, Lydia, at a theatre class during his freshman year at Northwestern. They were married three years later, just as Heston was about to ship out for the Aleutians in the Army Air Corps. (He enlisted after Pearl Harbor but wasn’t called up until 1944.) Lydia was an actor, too, and early in their marriage it was anyone’s guess which one of them would have the more successful career. She got an agent first after they moved to New York, but he caught a bigger break when he was cast in a live-television production of Julius Caesar, leading to a string of roles on Studio One, a CBS anthology series committed to bringing highbrow drama – everything from Shakespeare to adaptations of Turgenev and George Orwell – into American living rooms. Over the coming years, as Heston’s acting career accelerated, Lydia let hers slow to a crawl.

Although he saw himself as a committed New York stage actor, he went to Hollywood to appear in Dark City (1951), a decent, gritty film noir about a hustler who gets marked for death after he chisels the wrong guy in a card game. It foundered at the box office. He was in Cali­fornia to try out for a part he didn’t get when, on his way out of the Paramount parking lot, he happened to see Cecil B. DeMille standing on the steps of the building that bore his name. Though he’d never met DeMille before, Heston smiled and waved as he drove by. “Who was that?” DeMille asked his secretary. She reminded DeMille that he’d seen Dark City the previous week but hadn’t liked it. “Ummm, I liked the way he waved just now”, DeMille replied. He was, as it happened, casting The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) but had been unable to fill the part of the circus manager, Brad Braden, a character none too obliquely based on DeMille himself. No actor, thus far, had been quite handsome or masculine or commanding enough to suit his tastes – until, that is, DeMille saw Heston drive past. “We’d better have him in to talk”, the director said.

Yet Heston wasn’t DeMille’s first choice to play Moses four years later. Nor was he William Wyler’s first choice to play Ben-Hur three years after that. Wyler, as well as everyone else at the studio, wanted Marlon Brando for the part. But Heston got them both, and they remain the defining films of his career. The Ten Commandments played to Heston’s strengths – his deep, sten­torian voice and his effortless aura of authority – while turning his limitations as an actor into assets. Moses is not a complex character, and he becomes less complicated as the movie goes on. In the first part of the film, he is driven by simple, understandable desires: his love for a woman, Nefertiti (Anne Baxter), and his wish to succeed at his job, building an Egyptian city. In the second, he is driven purely by his devotion to God. His other motivations fall away, and with them vanish all outward displays of emotion other than mighty determination. One reason it is so difficult now to picture anyone else as Moses is that a more versatile actor – a Brando, a Burt Lancaster, a Kirk Douglas – would have tried to do too much, making him more nuanced, more human. Moses isn’t a nuanced character. He is a religious icon rendered on celluloid.

Ben-Hur was more of a stretch. Wyler was a hard director to please, notorious for taking and retaking even the simplest shots, sometimes dozens of times, until the actors achieved what he wanted. What that was, Wyler himself couldn’t always say. For one scene, he had Heston repeat the line “I’m a Jew!” sixteen times before he was satisfied. Heston wasn’t the least bit discouraged. “Willy’s the toughest director I’ve ever worked for”, he wrote in his diary during the shoot, “but I think he’s the best.” Wyler harnessed Heston’s intensity better than any director had before or would after, keeping his character’s angst at a simmer without ever – save for the silly scenes with Jesus – letting it boil over into hamminess.

Ben-Hur won Heston an Oscar for Best Actor, and it secured his reputation as one of Hollywood’s leading stars. It also set a perilous standard to follow. After establishing himself with such cinematic bombast, Heston had trouble accepting projects that offered anything less, leading him to appear in a whole series of echoey epics: El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), The War Lord (1965), Khartoum (1966).

He also fell prey to one of acting’s most pernicious vices: the need to be loved by his audience. To empathize with one’s character is one thing; to admire him entirely another. And to insist that the audience admire your character – not just as a dramatic creation but as a human being – is a particularly self-defeating form of vanity. A good actor must be willing to play scoundrels, morons and cowards. This Heston was not willing to do. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I’ve always been proud of the chance I’ve had to play genuinely great men”, he boasted in his autobiography.

That Heston never quite reached Wayne’s level of superstardom has less to do with talent than timing. Wayne and his coevals – Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, among others – had the good fortune of pursuing their careers at the height of the studio system, ensuring that they were well supplied with good scripts, as well as good directors to guide them. It is no coincidence that the most fruitful decade of Heston’s career was the 1950s: the tail end of the studio era. During this period, he was directed by DeMille (twice), Wyler (twice) and Orson Welles – just to name the giants – as well as King Vidor, Rudolph Maté and William Dieterle. In subsequent decades, the directors’ names became considerably less august – Heston worked with Sam Peckinpah before his prime and with Carol Reed well after his.

Yet Heston took acting very seriously. As Eliot details, Heston built his characters from the outside in, spending weeks researching the types of clothes they might wear and the props they might carry before ever stepping on a set. When preparing to play historical characters, as he so often did, Heston made first for the library. Before appearing in The Ten Commandments, he read twenty-two books on Moses, in addition to the Old Testament. And he actively sought out directors whom he felt he could learn from, including on stage, to which he remained uncommonly devoted. “I must somehow get at Olivier, or get him to get at me”, he confided to his diary, during rehearsals for The Tumbler. “He must not be satisfied with competence. If I’m ever to reach anything special creatively, it surely must happen with this part, this director.” The play closed on Broadway after five performances.

Heston rated himself alongside Olivier and Brando, not Tracy and Wayne. As a result, he often chose roles for which he was not ideally suited. When the negative reviews of The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) began coming in, Heston was at a loss to understand what had gone wrong. “This is beginning to bug me a bit”, he wrote in his diary. “I’m good in this film. If it doesn’t register, there’s something bloody wrong somewhere.” The something that Heston can’t quite put his finger on is himself. His Michelangelo is as lifeless as a block of Carrara marble, devoid of both the artist’s famous melancholy, as well as the kind of creative lust that would allow a man to spend four years teetering 65 feet above the ground with paint dripping into his eyes to decorate a ceiling.

A year later, Heston was crestfallen when Paul Scofield got the lead in A Man for All Seasons: “It’s too bad; I know I could do it better. Really I do”. Unfortunately for him, he eventually did get to appear in a television adaption of the play, thus making comparisons between his Thomas More and Scofield’s not only possible but inevitable. Externally, at least, Heston’s is the bigger performance – everything about it is bigger: his voice, his movements, the expressions on his face. Scofield plays More with monk-like serenity, except for a single, brief uncorking of his temper when More reproves the court that has just finished trying him. One might as well be comparing a Vermeer to a child’s drawing. After Richard Rich has testified against him, More asks Rich about the pendant around his neck. On being told that it is the chain of office of the Attorney General of Wales, More says to Rich, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”. Heston delivers the rebuke like a comedy club one-liner, flinging the pendant down on Rich’s chest with disgust. Scofield says it sadly, in the manner of a doctor delivering a fatal prognosis, scorning Rich and yet pitying him at the same time.

As an actor, Heston was best served by movies like The Big Country, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), Will Penny (1968) and Midway (1976), which capitalized on his commanding presence on screen while calling for Spartan displays of emotion. The best screen performance Heston gave, as well as the one he admired the most, was his portrayal of the cowboy Will Penny in the film of the same name. Penny is a man of few words, with few friends and even fewer possessions, a cowhand bouncing from job to job, his best years already behind him. Unlike other Heston characters, though, Penny seems at ease with his life. The coiled tension that is usually so marked in his performances is, in Penny, nowhere to be found. At one point, a younger cowboy picks a fight with Penny, only to end up in the dirt. When he complains that Penny doesn’t fight fair, Heston replies, “You’re the one that’s down”. Another actor might have delivered that line with menace or offered it as a taunt, but Heston says it matter-of-factly, unimpressed. He’s been around too long to get worked up over such horseplay.

When it came to politics, Heston liked to quote his friend Ronald Reagan, stating that he hadn’t left the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party had left him. This kind of bumper-sticker explanation was no more credible coming from Heston than it was coming from Reagan. Early in his life, Heston was not only a liberal but, in fact, more liberal than most Democrats of the time. In 1961, against the wishes of MGM’s nervous publicity department, he hung a sandwich board from his shoulders reading “ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL” and, with an old pal from New York, marched through the streets of Oklahoma City protesting against the segregation of the city’s restaurants. Two years later, when Martin Luther King Jr led his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Heston walked in the front row, directly behind King. While Marlon Brando urged the Hollywood contingent, which included Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte and Burt Lancaster, to make some kind of provocative demonstration (like chaining themselves to the Jefferson Memorial), Heston argued that such action would only distract from King’s message, making them look like a bunch of spoiled, self-aggrandizing radicals. The group, sensibly, listened to Heston rather than Brando. Most surprising – at least for those who remember him, years later, as president of the National Rifle Association – he lobbied for the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which remains one of the more stringent firearms laws passed in the United States.

What changed? Heston was turned off by the more wild-eyed antics of the Left in the late 1960s and early 70s, and he was clearly not entirely comfortable with the country’s changing social and sexual mores. His diary entries from this period begin to be dappled with curmudgeonly asides about Gloria Steinem, “ball-cutting” Barbara Walters and the large number of anti-government films being made. He was, likewise, never able to relinquish his support for the Vietnam War – in this instance, though, he was right about America’s shifting political landscape. The Democratic Party did move away from him on Vietnam. In 1960 and 1964, he voted for Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, both pro-war Democrats. When, in 1972, he was presented with a choice between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, who pledged to end the war immediately, he chose the warrior Nixon. But there was always something essentially conservative at Heston’s core, as his distaste for radical action during King’s march on Washington showed. William Wyler caught this in The Big Country in which Heston plays the foil to Gregory Peck’s idealistic protagonist. The film, though ostensibly a western about two rival families and the outsider who comes between them, is really a parable about the two opposing sides of American political thought, with Heston’s conservative on one side and Peck’s liberal on the other. Peck plays a boat captain from the east, come west to marry his sweetheart. Though personally unafraid of violence, he is committed to using it only as a last resort, preferring to broker a deal that will benefit both families. Heston plays the hard-boiled, no-nonsense foreman of the Terrill ranch, Steve Leech, who insists that violence must be met with violence – that, in a land without laws or policemen, order can only be maintained through strength. Since the movie was directed by Wyler and produced by Peck, both lifelong Democrats, the liberal naturally wins the ideological argument. Tellingly, though, when Peck and Heston finally have it out, in an epic battle of moonlit fisticuffs, neither one wins, pummelling each other till they can barely stand but never scoring a knock-out.

He was approached on more than one occasion, both by Democrats and Republicans, to run for one of California’s Senate seats. He seriously considered the matter in 1969 but, ultimately, found it impossible to give up his true passion: “The thought of never being able to act again, go onstage, or wait for the first take was simply unbearable”. During the 1980s, however, as his acting career dimmed, he increasingly served as a spokesman for various, mostly conservative, political causes. Like many who moonlight in politics, he was sometimes more passionate than informed. In a CNN debate with Christopher Hitchens in 1991, Heston, arguing in favour of military intervention against Iraq, revealed that he was only roughly aware of where the country was located. (He named Russia and Bahrain as contiguous countries.) After the gun massacre at Columbine High School, in which twelve students and one teacher were killed, Heston, who was then president of the National Rifle Association, declared, “If there had been even one armed guard in the school he could have saved a lot of lives and perhaps ended the whole thing instantly”. There had been an armed guard at the school.

It is this role, as president of the NRA, that now defines Heston’s political life, as well as casting a shadow over his acting career. Few today recall his advocacy for Civil Rights or for the National Endowment for the Arts, but nearly everyone can remember him waving a musket over his head and growling, “From my cold, dead hands!” In the light of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the worst in recent American history, this is particularly damaging. Heston’s voice, his stage training and his screen persona made him an excellent spokesman for the organization, and gave him the chance to stand before a roaring crowd again.

For all his passion for politics and obvious affection for his family, Heston was a thorough­ly self-involved individual. His acting diaries, as well as his autobiography, In the Arena (1995), beam with self-admiration. Eliot’s failure to remark on such a defining trait, in a biography that runs to nearly 500 pages, is unfortunate, if not uncharacteristic. Eliot prefers to describe rather than to dissect, leaving critical exegesis to others, and also, unfortunately, making numerous factual errors. Most of these mistakes are what you might call unforced errors, minor inaccuracies that are tangential to the story of Heston’s life. In the first page of the prologue, Eliot states that Heston was the longest-running president of the Screen Actors Guild, forgetting that Barry Gordon served a year longer. Later, when discussing Heston’s collaboration with Orson Welles on Touch of Evil (1958), he writes that Welles’s previous film, Man in the Shadow (1958), gave Welles his “first appearance in a Hollywood film in nearly ten years, following 1948’s dis­astrous The Lady from Shanghai”. What about Prince of Foxes (1949), The Black Rose (1950) and Moby Dick (1956)?

Less forgivable are the errors Eliot makes about his subject’s life, especially since so many of them can be flagged simply by consulting Heston’s acting journals, published in 1976. These include everything from getting dates wrong (Eliot writes that Gore Vidal arrived on the set of Ben-Hur on April 29, 1958 when he actually arrived on April 23) to taking a full 20 lbs off Heston’s weight, to stating that nobody, not even Heston, thought Planet of the Apes was going to do well at the box office. In fact, in a journal entry from October 31, 1967, three months before the film’s premiere, Heston wrote, “We saw APES today, with no score, no looped dialogue, and an unbalanced print. I liked it enormously. I think it may find a bigger audience than anything I’ve done since BEN-HUR”. (He was right about that.)

Eliot goes most awry when he relates the story of what was probably the greatest crisis in Heston’s long marriage. It occurred in the spring of 1973, as Heston was preparing to go to Spain to appear in The Three Musketeers. Lydia had for several years been suffering from increasingly severe migraines, which made her irritable, leading the couple to bicker. This culminated in a blow-up on April 27 that Heston touchingly described in his diary entry that day:

This turned out to be one of the very worst days of my life. Everything was wrenched out of joint. For the first time in my life, I believed Lydia would leave me. I spent some bleak hours trying to find some adjustment to it. She didn’t in the end and I don’t think she will, but it isn’t yet over, and may not be for some time. I can’t live without her, as I well know, and it seems she can’t live without me. We must begin with that . . . and end with it, too, I guess.

Eliot’s comment on this: “Heston had to catch a plane, which was probably a blessing”. But Heston didn’t leave for Europe until May 18, three weeks later. Before he left, Lydia underwent a thyroid operation, hoping it would allev­iate her migraines. Afterwards, Heston sat at her hospital bedside, recording his apprehensions in his diary. Yet Eliot makes it sound as if he was in Spain during this whole episode. This is both an inexplicable confusing of the facts and an unfair account of Heston’s marriage. Heston didn’t arrive in Madrid until well after Lydia’s surgery, and yet Eliot makes it sound as if he was off bending the elbow with Oliver Reed while his wife was all alone in Los Angeles, going under the knife.

Eliot also tends to assert more than he could ever know about his subject. “He was jolted out of his chair and, red-faced with rage, decided he had to enlist.” “He threw his arms around her, and pulled her so close he could feel her belly pressing into him.” And maybe worst of all: “Heston had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming”. The impression given by all this – both the errors of fact and the unfounded projections of emotion – is that Eliot would rather be writing a novel than a biography.

Heston lived an extraordinarily rich and exciting life, in no need of dressing up. He served in the Second World War; starred in his first film before he was thirty; marched with Martin Luther King; played tennis with Rod Laver; argued politics with Dwight Macdonald on the White House lawn; travelled to South-East Asia at the height of the Vietnam War; served as an emissary to China and East Berlin; had an acting career that lasted for more than five decades, combined with a marriage that lasted for more than six; and won an Oscar. “I have work, health, happiness, love”, Heston jotted in his diary in 1965. “What else is there?”

Talent. That was the one gift denied Heston, and it was the gift he craved the most. What Heston’s career before the camera reveals is that acting ability – at least of the kind that Heston so desperately wanted – cannot be achieved through hard work alone. If it could, Heston would have been the greatest actor of his generation. He had all the obviously essential qualities: a handsome face; an athletic body; a rich, resonant voice; intelligence; discipline; and ambition. He also worked tirelessly, in defiance of his limitations. When Stephen Macht, who acted onstage with Heston in A Man for All Seasons, asked him why he kept coming out night after night, despite the fact that the critics panned him so mercilessly, Heston smiled. “Because”, he said, “one day I will get it right.”

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Finished reading "The Making of PLANET of the APES" by Rinzler recently.

The notes he took during production were smart and showed great foresight. On the set he was thoughtful towards cast and crew. Seemed like an all around nice family guy, the only political talk of him during that time was of his complete support of MLK and the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously actors are cast for roles usually to coincide with their acting "wheelhouse" , and that's what a viewer should expect when choosing to watch a film.

 

 

 

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