Tuesday, April 08, 2008


"Do you fear me, Rochefort?"
"Yes, Eminence. I fear you. I also...hate you."
"I love you, my son, even when you fail."

Charlton Heston died over the weekend. I have surprisingly mixed feelings about him. Yeah, his politics were generally repulsive, we know this. Yeah, he could suck big time. But we seem to owe him big time for Orson Welles' being allowed to direct the masterful TOUCH OF EVIL.

There is one Heston performance I like. I think he's splendid as Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's films based on Dumas' THE THREE MUSKETEERS. His Cardinal is smart and wicked, running an entire nation at war while organizing plots to discredit the Queen of France. There is even one single instance, all the way at the very end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, where Heston displays something like a sense of humor. His recognition that he has been out-maneuvered, and a final little "go away, boy" dismissal gesture he makes towards D'Artagnan, are the most human moments I ever saw him deliver as an actor. Richard Lester did what no other director, not even Orson Welles or William Wyler, could do: he got Heston to deliver a sustained performance of intelligence and humor that lives onscreen.

Yeah, he could be as bad as everyone says he is. He seems to have been very willing to settle for the easiest, simplest solutions. When he plays noble, he plays NOBLE. When he plays angry, he plays ANGRY. When he plays happy, he plays HAPPY. And that's about it. He's the King Of One-Note Sincerity.

This can be seen most clearly in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the great mad camp classic from Cecil B. DeMille. Surrounded by actors like Yul Brynner and Edward G. Robinson having a wonderful time chewing the scenery, camping up a storm, and apparently competing to see who can best get away with the outrageous overheated dialogue, Heston alone plays it not just straight but STRAIGHT. Robinson's Slimy Little Traitor and Brynner's Hunky Pagan Pharoah Ramses, for example, manage to hit something real and recognizably human for all their cartoonishness. Heston's Moses just can't compete: there's no joy or even basic humanity in him, either as a character or as a performance. Moses' reaction to Ramses' final capitulation, a loud solemn prayer of thanksgiving to the Eternal God, is written and played in such a way as to make you want an 11th Commandment about winning gracefully.

I almost forgive all the solemnity and High Authority when Heston parts the Red Sea. Not God, not the John P. Fulton's special effects men. Heston does it. The Red Sea parts because he damn well tells it to. I can't imagine it doing otherwise.

And I'll say it: Heston doesn't entirely suck in BEN HUR, a movie I seem to be alone in finding to be more than an excuse for a chariot race. While Heston is all too often acted off the screen by the likes of Jack Hawkins or the sublime Hugh Griffith, there are occasional arresting little moments of humanity that surprise. His amusement at Hugh Griffith's perfectly delivered joke about monogamy being "ungenerous" seems genuine and unplanned, a rarity for Heston. This may have been the result of working with William Wyler instead of De Mille, of course. There's a lot of gossip about the alleged "gay subtext" that uncredited script doctor Gore Vidal claims to have added to the relationship between Heston's Ben Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala, which apparently was kept secret from Heston because he wouldn't have been able to handle it. It certainly seems that Boyd is playing that thwarted romantic vibe for all it is worth, while Heston settles for basic tears-in-the-blue-eyes joy at seeing a dear childhood friend. And there it is: no one would ever accuse Heston of adding an extra level or playing a subtext. He just couldn't handle it.


Pooji said...

I remember him being very funny when he hosted Saturday Night Live (back in the 1986-1987 season). "The New Paper Chase" (Heston as a Kingsfield-like professor at UNLV) and the 'Oral Roberts skit' (Heston as God, calling Oral home) being particularly funny.

Of course, that was more than twenty years ago.

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