Monday, April 7, 2008

Go Down Moses

In Beverly Hills, California this weekend, someone pried a Smith and Wesson out of Charlton Heston's cold, dead fingers.

In the last two decades, Heston came to be known primarily as a gun rights advocate and NRA leader, but for previous generations, Heston was the go-to guy for big epics, whether they were The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. His was an outsized persona that perfectly fit those grandiose stories. In an era when Brando and "The Method" were revolutionizing acting on the silver screen, Heston was a throwback to a more outward style of acting; he didn't just ignore subtlety, he dropkicked subtlety out of a twelfth floor window and turned around and walked calmly away before it could hit the ground.

A decade after his epic film heyday, Heston would reinvent himself, anchoring a trio of legendary science fiction movies in the late 1960s/early 1970s: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. In those, again, his massive, monolithic characterization suited the material's ambitions. Each was a none-too-subtle social critique of the times and when you wanted a dollop of none-too-subtle-osity in your leading man, you knew where to turn.

After that, through the rest of the 70s and beyond, Heston would show up and cash a check, lending his legend to a mixed bag of films, some good (Richard Lester's Musketeer movies), some bad (Airport 1975), most indifferent.

It's telling that late in his career, he would occasionally be cast as The Great Actor. In Wayne's World 2, he is brought in as himself to coach up a poor player. And in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, he gets the role of The Player King, leader of a troop of actors and Hamlet's friend and co-conspirator. The generation that grew up with him as Moses and Apes' Taylor was strongly affected by his enormous impact and gladly paid him homage.

His chiseled-jaw, deathly serious moralizing in his greatest roles lent itself to easy parody, as Phil Hartman's brilliant spoofs on "Saturday Night Live" can attest. Personally, I always preferred his overreach to the somnambulism of other, underplaying bores. Heston may not have been the Greatest Actor of His Time, but he was never dull on screen.

And now he's dead. Damn dirty apes everywhere can rest easier.

No comments:

John and Dave talks Oscar nomination predictions