Thursday, 17 September 2015

Whether He's Talking Movies or Politics, Charlton Heston Is a Straight Shooter

In the beginning, there was the jaw, and the jaw was tight. It was a chiseled jaw in the marble landscape of a face, and the mouth was not the kind for kissing, but for barking commandments in the clearest possible diction, each word given its own space and time, and woe be unto those unbelievers who would worship the golden calf when he came down from the mountain and laid down the law of the land.

Because Moses was not a man -- or Charlton Heston an actor -- to mumble his lines. Or to monkey with.

In the mind's eye, the iconic roles of Heston's career were figures of absolute authority: Ben-Hur and El Cid, Charles Gordon of Khartoum, Moses and Capt. Taylor marooned on a planet populated by talking apes. Bigger-than-life men, men of intestinal fortitude, tested by the fates, standing ramrod-straight, leading with their jaw, entering the arena to do battle, no quarter asked or given.
Also, Heston became famous -- or infamous -- for his politics, particularly his role in later years as the front man for the National Rifle Association and his belief that the Bill of Rights is built upon the bedrock of the Second Amendment. You would take away Chuck Heston's right to bear arms at your own peril.
And so these may be reasonable images to pass through the mind as one ascends Coldwater Canyon to visit Heston at his hilltop lair, which he calls, simply, the Ridge. He holds the high ground.
One is aware that in his 1995 autobiography, "In the Arena," Heston offered his thoughts on the importance of well-defended perimeter.
"Most people in the film community are unfamiliar with firearms and many oppose them, some quite virulently," Heston wrote. "During the L.A. riots in 1992, a good many of these folk suffered a change of heart. As smoke from burning buildings smudged the skyline and the TV news showed vivid images of laughing looters smashing windows and carting off boomboxes and booze, I got a few phone calls from firmly anti-gun friends in clear conflict. 'Umm, Chuck, you have quite a few . . . ah, guns, don't you?'
" 'Yes, I do.'
" 'Shotguns and . . . like that?'
" 'Indeed.'
" 'Could you lend me one for a day or so? I tried to buy one, but they have this waiting period . . . ' "
This waiting period, indeed.
Heston concludes the lesson with the warning to looters eyeing his boomboxes and booze. "Our only neighbors on our ridge are the Isaacs. Between us, Billy and I must own at least 40 firearms of various types. We would resist with deadly force any assault on our homes or those who live in them."
Because Charlton Heston holds the high ground.

And so on a warm, sunny morning, as the visitor pulls into the drive, a figure appears behind the window and watches. It is Heston himself. He steps out, extends a handshake of medium-strength grip and leads the way inside. The jaw is still there and the eyes are bright and clear. For Heston is now 74 years old and has recently had hip surgery, the bane of the aged, and so moves stiffly into the living room, wearing nylon sweat pants that make a shushing sound, and on his feet are thick white socks and a pair of cheap black Chinese slippers, and he is shuffling. Time passes for all, and Chuck Heston's days of chariot racing are behind him.

"I have played formidable authority figures," he begins, his voice still bass, still resonating with an oaken-cask profundo. "Characters not easy to get along with. Kings and warriors and cowboys and cops and astronauts, and, of course, Moses. None of these men you want to cross."

Indeed. A few years ago, Heston returned to the screen in a cameo role for director James Cameron in Arnold Schwarzenegger's "True Lies," in which Heston played, complete with a pirate's eye patch, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He explains: "Cameron said that I was the only actor who could plausibly intimidate Arnold." He knows that he has that power, and the trademark of grit appears to please him. It has clearly provided him with his life's work.

"It is my physical equipment," he says. "I was once asked why there weren't as many tall actors today and I have to say that stumped me. There aren't."

Heston had the height and jawbone, and the voice that is almost as recognizable as a signature. Throughout his career, Heston has done Shakespeare "because that is what I believe actors should do." It shows in his acting.

While other actors, in his time and later, pursued a more naturalistic style of acting, Heston's work is classical and theatrical -- and physical. He says it is a matter of pride that he learned to fight with broadswords, and ride horses and camels, and to race a chariot, as he did in "Ben-Hur," probably his most memorable role next to Moses.

Modern audiences today who rent his long-running videos on rainy weekends might find his acting in the epics a bit stiff and dated, but oddly comforting. In a contemporary culture, riven by crosscurrents fuzzing the lines of good and evil, Charlton Heston is the crossing guard.

In interviews and his autobiography, Heston is generous about the work of others and humble about his own. "I have done some great scenes," he says. "I have had some great parts. There was some good work and some not-so-good work, there were failed films and a few fine ones. As for my work, I will leave that to others."

He is, though, unhappy about certain trends in modern cinema and American life. "There are fewer giant figures today," he says. "The excitement in the movies is largely digital. There is nothing much really to act. The actors could be replaced by holograms, could become special effects themselves."
As Heston reclines on a couch in his living room, his fingers fidget with his shirt buttons and tug at the upholstery piping, distracted.

"I am not Moses," he says at one point. But how to reconcile the man and the actor?

Most of his early boyhood, until the age of 10, was spent in the Michigan woods. In his autobiography, Heston writes of hunting and helping put meat in the stew pot. But he admits it was only a few rabbits, at most, and that he spent more time in the forest around his home, pretending to be other people, Huck Finn or Davy Crockett.

His parents were divorced when he was young -- a traumatic event, and a shame to him that he never spoke of at the time. He and his mother moved about until she remarried and the family moved to Wilmette, a Chicago North Shore suburb. In high school, he was not skilled enough to play team sports, so he joined the rifle team and the chess club, but dropped them when he discovered a love of the stage.

It was Drama Club for young Chuck. He was a shy boy and he says the shyness has been with him for a lifetime. He was never adopted by his mother's second husband, Chet Heston, but he took his name. "It is possible," he writes, "that I'm a loner because I'm an actor. An actor at work is giving you somebody else. He's not performing to you; you're watching him be another man. In my case, it's often a real historical figure, a far better man than I am myself."

The Winnetka Community Theater awarded him a scholarship to Northwestern University to study acting, but his training was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Navy. He served his time in a lonely outpost in the Aleutian Islands. He did not fire a shot in anger. As he put it: "I attended World War II."

He married his wife, Lydia, also an actor, and their marriage continues more than 50 years later.
Heston's political activities began with leadership of a union, the Screen Actors Guild. He voted Democratic, for Kennedy and Johnson, and, as many of the current critics of his politics may not recall, he was an early supporter of civil rights and marched in Washington, in the full flower of his celebrity after his roles as Moses and Ben-Hur, with Martin Luther King Jr.

But Heston was, even then, turning to the right. He recalls, while filming "War Lord," being driven from location to hotel and passing a large billboard with a portrait of Barry Goldwater and a sea of blue and the words: "In your heart, you know he's right."

"Yeah," Heston says now, talking on the Ridge. "that was Saint Paul on the road to Damascus." An epiphany. The turning of the screw.

"Dear God, what a sorry road we've slid down since then," Heston believes. The slide? In his book, the actor-activist rails.

Oliver Stone "attacking the core elements of society."
Political correctness run amok.

"Affirmative action is a stain on the American soul."

Quentin Tarantino's philosopher-assassins.

Ice-T rapping about cop killing.

And overpopulation of the planet, an issue that forms the central idea of his one "message movie," the 1973 chiller with one of his most memorable lines: "Soylent Green . . . is people."

"Our borders are awash in immigrants," he writes, "a large proportion of them illegal, but all nonetheless qualified for the fruits of our welfare state, entitled to generous benefits, including not only voting in our elections on ballots in the language of their choice, but the education of their progeny in that language."

On another page, he relates, "A columnist described the childhood of a welfare kid with brutal honesty: first felony arrest at fourteen, becomes an absent parent at sixteen, out of school at seventeen if he gets that far, with a diploma he can't read."

A society unraveling? A planet of the apes? The man who played Moses is honestly, deeply concerned. "In a staggering number of Hollywood films of the past 20 years, the villains are authority figures in American society," he says.

Charlton Heston, for his 20 years in the arena, was the authority figure in American epic films. There was right and wrong. Good and evil. Honor and cowardice. Heston died for something in his movies. Moses did not reach the promised land. El Cid died of his wounds, but was propped upon his stallion's back, dead, to lead his men into glorious battle against the invading Moors in Spain.
The world is now more of a muddle.

After an hour or so, it is time to leave the Ridge. The road to his house is being rebuilt, and the workers and their equipment are crowding the front drive, but Heston comes out and waves his arm, directing traffic, bringing order, parting the waves, and then he limps back into the house and, in the rearview mirror, closes the door.


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