Thursday, 17 September 2015

Larger Than Life: Charlton Heston

One day more than 35 years ago, I pulled into the parking lot of the massive Del Coronado hotel in San Diego when an equally massive figure walked in front of my car, blocking my view because his body filled the entire windshield. It was Charlton Heston, and he strode toward the tennis courts with a purposive authority that brought to mind Moses and Ben Hur, albeit dressed this time in shorts. This was the closest I ever got to Heston in the flesh, although, like hundred of millions of other moviegoers, I saw a great deal of him, sometimes barely clothed (“Planet of the Apes”), on the big screen.
“Big” is an appropriate word. Heston was physically imposing and he was a big movie star, someone who for several decades was the very definition of the phrase “leading man.” With his passing on April 5th, and the passing of Richard Widmark 10 days earlier , there are no leading men of a certain kind left, even as living mementos of a bygone era. John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, Rock Hudson, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck. They’re all gone; the only ones still alive are Clint Eastwood, who now sits behind the camera most of the time, and Kirk Douglas, in his 90s and slowed down by a stroke.
What all these fallen stars (with the exception of Widmark) shared was a physicality that radiated energy and demanded attention. They were “compelling screen presences,” in part because they literally filled the screen, just as Heston filled the smaller screen of my windshield. (Lancaster often acted with his back to the camera; power emanated from it; his back was the expressive counterpart of Douglas’s chest, which was bared in almost every movie he made.) It was no accident that all these guys were identified (some more than others) with the western, a genre that foregrounds the glories and trials of masculinity as they are captured in a line from Louis L’Amour’s “Heller With a Gun” (1955): “It was a hard land and it bred hard men to hard ways.”
But Heston wasn’t hard (many have testified to how genuinely nice he was), and it showed in his best performances. The fact is that Heston’s size, his monumentality, was an obstacle he had to overcome in order to become the actor he wanted to be. When you saw him it was all too easy to agree with Pauline Kael’s summary assessment: “With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a god-like hero; built for strength, he is an archetype of what makes Americans win.” Mike LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked just after the star’s death, “By size, disposition and worldview, Heston was incapable of playing a small man.”
But that’s not right. Not only was Heston capable of playing a small man; the tension between the inner smallness he was portraying and his physical mass added strength and poignancy to the performance. A good example is the 1958 movie “The Big Country,” a powerful western directed by William Wyler (who would direct Heston in “Ben Hur” the next year and who was the director of the best American movie ever made, “The Best Years of our Lives”).
“The Big Country” is a really big movie in every way — scope, landscape, music, performances and bodies. Heston’s co-actors include Gregory Peck, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors and Burl Ives, each a large man exuding power. In this company, Heston is at best the sixth lead (although he got fourth billing), behind Peck, Bickford, Ives and the two female stars, Carroll Baker and Jean Simmons. The key to his role is that he is not his own man. His character is in love with his boss’s daughter (Baker) and he hopes that his loyal service to “the Major” (Bickford) will someday be rewarded by a piece of the ranch. These aspirations are upset by the arrival of Peck as the daughter’s successful suitor. A retired sea-captain entirely out of water, the Peck character nevertheless navigates quite confidently in his new surroundings. Even when he makes mistakes, and he makes more than a few, he always displays an inner ease in contrast to Heston’s Leech, who is anxious, ambitious, jealous and frustrated.
The plot gives Leech an opportunity to redeem himself, or rather to be himself, and he almost takes it but doesn’t. The Major is about to storm the ranch house of his hated rival, played by Ives (they are feuding over a water source called, what else, the Big Muddy), and set off a battle that can only end with the death of almost everyone. Leech sees the folly of the enterprise, and tells the Major that for the first time he cannot stand with him. But when the Major starts out on his own, Leech simply cannot abandon him, and he joins him riding down the canyon to the rousing cadences of one of the best movie scores ever written. In a more conventional western, this would have come across as an act of heroism (going down with your friend despite the odds), but “The Big Country” is an attack on the code of the West, and Leech here displays his inability to break free of it. Heston is magnificent in his willingness to be small, a man of great outward strength who cannot summon the inner strength to break free of his subservience to another. (It is a tribute to his performance that Bosley Crowther’s review in this newspaper barely mentioned him.)
What “The Big Country” demonstrates is that Heston was really a character actor in a leading man’s body, and that his basic character was not Moses or Ben Hur or El Cid but the weak and flawed inhabitant of a physical frame he could not live up to. In some of his finest films, he plays that role even when he is the leading man. “Will Penny” (Heston’s favorite among his own movies) is the best example. He plays the title character, an illiterate, limited cow hand who just tries to hang on over the winter, and has no future. A future opens up to him in the form a woman and her son, but (like Leech) he can’t take it because he knows that he’s not up to it, or to much of anything else. In the end he rides away, not in the splendid isolation that marks the exit of the classic western hero who has cleaned up the town or saved the valley, but just in isolation. A reviewer at draws the right moral: “Heston so often required to play larger than life characters delivers a sublime performance in a role that is the exact opposite.”
He does it again in “Soylent Green” (1973), a film graced by the great Edward G. Robinson’s final performance as on old man ready to die. (Robinson died nine days after the film was completed.)
The time is a future in which overpopulation and environmental disaster have led to a dystopia ruled over by the mysterious Soylent Corporation, which distributes a food source of questionable origin. Heston plays Thorn, a police detective investigating the death of a member of the board with the help of researcher Sol Roth (Robinson). He is bitter, venal, exploitative and thoroughly unattractive, but as he pursues his investigation despite the attempts of his superiors to close it down, he grows into someone who is ready to risk his life in order to bear witness to the terrible truth of a society that is literally eating itself (“Soylent green is people”). Thorn is a reluctant protagonist, again a small man in a body too big for him. Reviewer Tamara Hladick, writing for, calls him a “dubious, ambiguous hero” and names Robinson’s Roth, a big man in a small body, the film’s “conscience and soul.”
The conscience (in a weird sense) and soul of “Touch of Evil” is Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan, a very big man in a very big body whose zeal for justice had led him to acts of corruption including murder. Heston plays Mike Vargas, a Mexican policeman no less self-righteous than Quinlan, but much less effective. He runs around a lot and manages to place his sexy new wife (Janet Leigh) in danger while repeatedly misreading the situation he has gotten himself into. In the end, Quinlan dies because his trusted assistant tricks him into a confession, an act not of betrayal but (he explains) of fidelity to the lessons his mentor has taught him. Vargas is technically victorious; he brings down the bad guy and gets to ride out of town with Janet Leigh; but the camera lingers on the fallen bulk of Quinlan who, even in death, receives a famous tribute from Marlene Dietrich: “He was some kind of man.” Vargas may be a man some day, but not in this movie. He just looks the part. Quinlan, barely able to move and spectacularly unattractive, is the real thing. Once again, Heston uses his movie-star profile and body as foils to set off something more substantial. It is a performance of great generosity as he yields the spotlight to the actor/director he so much admired.
It was a generosity he displayed off-screen as well as on. He supported Welles in his battles against the studio as he would later support Sam Peckinpah, to the extent of forfeiting his salary when the famously erratic director’s funding was cut off because of cost overruns incurred in the filming of “Major Dundee” (1965). He stood and marched with Martin Luther King. He lobbied for the National Endowment for the Arts despite disliking some of the projects it funded. He served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild and was chairman of the American Film Institute. He was active in politics, first as a liberal democrat, before following his friend Ronald Reagan down the path of conservatism. Again like Reagan, he announced to the public that he was suffering form what appeared to be an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, ending his announcement with these famous lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.” When he went to his final sleep, his wife of 64 years was by his bedside.
And, oh yes, he was a passionate (some said fanatic) advocate of gun rights and the president of the National Rifle Association. Many on the other side of this controversy were unable to forgive him for what they considered a moral as well as a political failing, and they vilified both the man and the career. They were wrong to do so. He was some kind of man.


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger.