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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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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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