Monday, April 07, 2008

Give 'em hell, Heston


I was greatly saddened to hear of Charlton Heston's passing - not just because he was a gifted actor whose work I greatly admired, but because he was truly part of a dying breed - he embodied the spirit of two-fisted, no-nonsense manliness that sadly seems to quickly fading away in today's Hollywood. While today's movie screens are populated by wind-swept hair-sporting underwear models like Matthew McConaghey, and goofy "big teenager" types like Will Ferrel and Adam Sandler, Heston, like Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and John Wayne, came from a time when Men were Men with a capital M, and the bad guys better get the fuck out of his way. Whether he was leading the Jews to freedom in The Ten Commandments or battling hordes of the undead in The Omega Man, Heston did it all with muscle-bound, squared jawed gusto.

Personally, I'll remember Mr. Heston for three distinct roles: the first, of course, is Taylor in Planet of the Apes. With his rugged physique and hot temper, it's no surprise that his simian captors regarded him as a brainless neanderthal, but he's such a truly rugged guy, that you can't help but cheer when he snarls the now-legendary line "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" - not to mention getting a chill up your spine at the film's finale. The second is Mike Vargas in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, a film I actually prefer over Citizen Kane. Although the film gets a lot of flack for Heston's not entirely convincing portrayal of a Mexican-American detective, the character was originally written as white - it was Welles himself who changed the character's race to Hispanic. Heston was responsible for convincing the studios to allow Welles to take the director's chair in addition to playing the corrupt, racist cop Hank Quinlan, and also the one who managed to hang on to Welles' encyclopedic editing notes, which were used for the recent restoration of the film. Plus, if you ask me - he somehow made his character work.

The third role is as the titular melancholy, aging cowboy in the most underrated 1968 western Will Penny. In this picture, Heston gave one of the finest displays of sad and wounded humanity as a former cattle runner hired as a guard on a wealthy rancher's land, who decides to protect Joan Hackett's character and her young son even though they are squatting there illegally. This is the film and the performance you show to people who dismiss Heston as a ham - of course it also doesn't hurt that the movie features Donald Pleasance as a renegade preacher so utterly diabolical and completely bugshit he makes Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter look like a big kitten.

Heston gave many other great and memorable performances too - the soul-saving, chariot-racing ex-slave of Ben-Hur, the empathetic yet two-fisted hero Detective Thorn of Soylent Green (the third chapter of Heston's unofficial end-of-the-world trilogy, along with Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man) the depressive, cigar-chomping emotional train wreck of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee, the noble Spanish conquistador in El Cid - hell, the guy was even fun to watch in the mediocre fluff he sometimes appeared in, like The Greatest Show on Earth and Alaska.

It's hard to discuss Heston without discussing the guy's politics - I've always been a proponent of seperating the man from the artist, but in his case, I don't even think that's necessary. Despite his often being labeled as a conservative boogeyman, Heston routinely stood up for causes on both sides of the political fence. During the Civil Rights movement he marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, and even picketed one of his own premieres in Oklahoma upon discovering that the audience would be segregated. He also opposed the Vietnam War, and while I may not necessarily agree with his views on gun legislation and other Republican causes, I respect the fact that Heston stood up for what he believed in - if you ask me, activism on either side of the issue is better than ambivalence. Heston stood up to the arguably right-headed yet often sheeplike liberal majority of Hollywood with the same square-jawed stones with which he stood to Pharaoh Rameses and Dr. Zaius. If anything, Michael Moore's treatment of the man in Bowling for Columbine - in which the documentarian barged into the actor's house, demanding he apologize for the death of a young school shooting victim - completely backfired, making Moore appear the bigger asshole of the two, and a very confused-looking Heston the victim.

With Heston's passing, we've truly lost a legend, and I'm sure he's giving the egghead do-gooders in the next life a hell of a time. Farewell, Mr. Heston, you shall be missed.


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