Sunday, April 6, 2008

The many sides of Charlton Heston

Film Critic Emeritus

Charlton Heston's death Saturday at the age of 83 will bring a caravan of widely varied blogs. The first wave has been respectful, with some entries downright idolizing. But expect a more negative buzz to follow.

So it is with this posting. Heston-haters who want to accentuate the negative should jump to the mid-section of this column. But, stodgy as it sounds, let's first give credit where credit is due.

Heston's most widely-seen roles were as Moses in "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and as Judah Ben-Hur in "Ben-Hur" (1959). In "The Ten Commandments," his Moses engulfs multiple personalities -- the young, exiled prince; the courageous exodus leader; and, finally, the outraged patriarch furious at his flock's worship of a golden calf.

Through it all, Heston provides a sense of unity. We see hints of his temper early in the spectacle. But Heston also gives clues that a heroic leader may be negligent in his personal life. The film's two worst performances are by its leading ladies. Yvonne DeCarlo, she of "Frontier Gal," "Flame of the Islands" and "The Munsters," plays his long-suffering wife, while Anne Baxter is Pharaoh Rameses' spouse, who lusts after Heston's Moses.

Yet the two actresses share the epic's most personal moment, when DeCarlo sadly tells Baxter, "You lost Moses when he went to find his Lord. I lost him when he found Him."

Heston's performance, more than DeCarlo's, has made it clear that it's not easy being a great leader's wife.

Burt Lancaster was first offered "Ben-Hur" and would have brought more fury to the character. But Heston's grief upon discovering that his mother and sister are lepers is memorable. He was also effective in another impressive epic, 1961's "El Cid." But by the time of "55 Days at Peking" (1963), "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965) and "Khartoum" (1967), both the epic genre and Heston's performances were less invigorating.

But he also sought non-foolproof roles in chance-taking films. After 40 years, it's difficult to believe that "Planet of the Apes" was considered a risk. But its seemingly outlandish premise and shocking conclusion rendered it risky until positive buzz developed just prior to its release. Heston was not ideally cast in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958), but like virtually all of Welles' post-"Citizen Kane" movies, the film's reputation has grown in retrospect. And so has Heston's performance.

He also starred in one of Sam Peckinpah's first films, "Major Dundee" (1965), and he also gave a warm, even haunting performance in the elegiac 1968 western "Will Penny," which remains a favorite of the few who saw it. And he was strong and nasty in two of his most ornery roles, as Gregory Peck's tormentor in 1958's "The Big Country" and as the satyric title character of 1965's underrated "The War Lord," in which he sought wedding-night privileges from a serf's bride.

Heston invested his money judiciously in airports and other real estate and, even by movie-star standards, became an extremely wealthy man. In his later years, he was an icon of the well-heeled far right. Yet it's useful to remember that in his younger days, in 1963, he had marched alongside Martin Luther King. In 1968, he campaigned for gun control. In 1998 he became president of the NRA.

Inevitably, he was aware of his far-right image and did an entertaining self-parody in the little-seen Warren Beatty/Diane Keaton comedy "Town & Country" (2001).

By all accounts, he was a devoted husband and father. Yet he was not always loved by colleagues. A rumor still persists that Barbara Stanwyck, who starred opposite almost every popular actor of her era, left the night-time soap "The Colbys" because she didn't like acting with Heston.

When Peck posed with the Old Testament when touring to promote his recording of Bible verses, a photographer told him he looked like Charlton Heston. Peck's reply: "Oh, please God, no!."

In his memoir, Heston wrote at length about how impatient he got with "El Cid" co-star Sophia Loren's insistence on perfect hair and make-up. When I asked the lovely Loren about Heston's comments, she laughed and said, "If only dear [director] Anthony Mann were still alive to talk about how Chuck Heston drove him crazy by insisting on flattering camera angles!"

I interviewed Heston many times through the years and, on those occasions, he held an interview as if granting a favor. He clearly did not lack for self-esteem.

A story has circulated for years among local media. A group of young women entered his elevator following an interview and seemed not to notice him. He cleared his throat and said in his most sonorous tones, "Back when we were filming 'The Ten Commandments' ..." The women turned and glowingly acknowledged his presence. By the time the elevator stopped, he was a happy Moses.

My first encounter with him was in a Miami interview for the 1969 reissue of "Ben-Hur." Prior to the interview, a group of senior Miami ladies clucked over him, and he relished in their adoration. "Midnight Cowboy" had just been released, with Dustin Hoffman, as Ratso Rizzo, having a fantasy in which he envisions himself as the darling of senior Miami ladies.

Heston entered the interview room, all gracious smiles. A young reporter told him that his enjoyment of the ladies' admiration reminded him of Ratso Rizzo's fantasy in "Midnight Cowboy." Heston's gracious smile turned instantly into an imperial "We-are-not-amused" scowl.

Charlton Heston definitely took his image seriously.

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