Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston in Hamlet (1996)
Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle's profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso — this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima mon amour or Citizen Kane, films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise-en-scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.

— From In Defense of Violence, by Michel Mourlet, 1960

While I'm not sure I entirely agree with Mourlet (or even fully understand him), I certainly enjoy Heston's acting and films enough to acknowledge a glint of truth under the inflated praise. His "presence in any film" certainly makes the movie more entertaining, and he seemed to emerge from most of them unscathed by any of their failings. Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested the same about Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is fitting. Before Tim Burton re-made (sorry, "re-imagined") Planet of the Apes, I had heard a rumor (or perhaps I had merely made a wish) that James Cameron was planning a remake with Schwarzenegger in Heston's role, which seemed entirely appropriate. In fact, Schwarzenegger is perhaps the only star who could survive such a film and the expectations placed upon it, regardless of its success or failure (see: Batman and Robin).

Similarly, Heston was seldom bested by the often-fantastic grandeur of his films. Chariot races, talking apes, nocturnal mutants, hijacked planes, walls of fire: I don't know if he elevated such things or simply remained above them, but he certainly committed to the at-times over-the-top machismo of the characters who confronted them. This added greatly to the effectiveness of Heston's relatively understated roles. Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil, despite the makeup and mustache, is one example (certainly it was difficult for even Heston to overpower Orson Welles), and his turn as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is perhaps my favorite, though it probably wouldn't have been if it hadn't been preceded by the gusto of "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" or "Soylent Green is people!"

The quality identified by Mourlet is perhaps what made Heston the ideal spokesperson for controversial conservative causes later in life: The theatricality of "From my cold dead hands" is a line I would have cheered in one of his films, regardless of my feelings about this sentiment in the real world.

1 comment:

  1. Charlton Heston has been described as a man who, "was shaped by nature to be a hero". I can attest to that statement having encountered him during his visit to Australia, some years ago.

    His size, physique, resonant voice and commanding presence were apparent, even at that advanced stage in his life. With these attributes he was well equipped for the types of roles that had made him famous.

    Charlton Heston's extensive acting experience extended from stage to screen in such diverse genre as Shakespear, Film-noir, Adventure, Westerns, Drama, Comedy, and of course, Epics, and his ability was recognised by the public, critics and his peers.

    His "controversial conservative causes", that you have mentioned, were irrelevant to those of us who reside "overseas" where his cinematic legacy, fortunately, has not been tainted by politics.

    As you have pointed out, it was the French critics who first recognised Charlton Heston as "an axiom of the cinema' and world-wide audiences agreed, as witnessed by their strong support for his films.