Charlton Heston, who died on Saturday night at the age of 84, was many things.
He was Hollywood's last truly legendary film star. He was a veteran who, despite entering the business in the early fifties when the golden age was breathing its last, had the great good sense to seek out projects of stature almost from the start, working for De Mille, Welles, Wyler, Anthony Mann, Carol Reed and Nicholas Ray.
He became the ultimate symbol of the fifties epic hero, yet he was never mere beefcake. He wasn't even handsome, really: there was the famous broken nose to contend with, a coldness in the eyes, a slight sneer on the lips.
He was just as good at villains and weaklings as heroes, though by and large the public did not want him that way, any more than they wanted to see him in a suit. He has probably played more great historical figures in biographical dramas than any other actor, and of each he strove always to give a real performance, backed up by mountainous research and a general seriousness of purpose unusual for an actor of his type.
Was he a great actor? Well, probably not. He had to work hard, and you can see the effort. Effects that come with ease to some he sweated for, and his presence is sometimes too somber for his surroundings. Certainly comedy was way out of his grasp. But he was honest about his limitations as about everything else, and his commitment to his craft, and his seriousness, and his drive to do better, were rare and remarkable in an industry where ego usually speaks loudest.
When thinking of his career, obviously we turn first to the epics, to the De Milles, in modern dress as the circus owner in The Greatest Show On Earth and then blazing with authority (at only 31 years of age) as Moses in The Ten Commandments; we think of his solemn action heroes: Ben Hur, chariot racing, and El Cid, propped dead on his horse for one final ride into glory.
.He's great in genre, too, fine in westerns and, towards the end of his career, a brooding presence in sci-fi and horror: Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, The Awakening and the moving, important Soylent Green (which he called his only message movie).
In his more unusual appearances - as a Mexican cop in Welles's Touch of Evil, for instance - he is never exactly a revelation, but usually far more assured than we might have expected him to be. He had a talent for showing the hidden depths of men of action; look at his work in 55 Days in Peking - an action role, essentially, transformed into a character part by his gravity and attention to detail.
My two favourite Heston performances are both of great historical figures, one of them usually dismissed, the other generally conceded to be among his best. As Gordon in Khartoum he surprised even his defenders with the subtlety and assurance of his performance.
His Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy is less acclaimed, and predictable jibes about casting Heston as a man who may have been both homosexual and a dwarf are usually deemed sufficient to dismiss it. But never has an actor so ably conveyed the sheer toil of great artistic endeavour, the intensity it entails, and the sacrifices it demands in terms of human intimacy, definitely more agony than ecstasy but a display of commitment to the task in hand of which Michelangelo himself might have approved.
There's a passage in The Actor's Life, his fascinating collected diaries, that shows clearly just how much work and thought he was prepared to put into even the most undemanding projects:
A good chunk of work today... The scene's not bad now, including an interesting acting problem. In my character as an engineer, I help (a character who is an actress) rehearse a scene. It's not easy to read lines the way a man who doesn't know how to read lines would.
Not every actor would even notice such subtleties, and when the film in question is Earthquake the list surely narrows to one. Any other actor of his status in such a role would have prided themselves on phoning it in, taking the money and running. But Heston was different for two reasons: firstly, because he was incapable of taking a large cheque and not doing his best in return for it, and secondly, because he knew he would enjoy the experience more if he tried to make something of even the slightest material. In the same film, he insisted that his character be killed at the end trying to save the wife he hates. The studio resisted but gave in, and again, his instincts were the sounder, partly because it brings a moment of genuine surprise to an otherwise predictable plot and also because without it the character would have been insufferable: he knows there's an earthquake coming, he's ignored, he's proved right, he saves Los Angeles, his nasty wife dies and his mistress is waiting for him at fade-out. In his book, Heston calls it "one of the most important changes I've ever managed to make to a script". He's right - and all on behalf of Earthquake.
Heston was also an American hero, a man who spoke increasingly uncomfortable truths without fear of intimidation, who stood up for reason and fairness and displayed an unerring talent for taking the right position - morally and logically - on every issue. He marched with Martin Luther King at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the fifties but resigned from Actors Equity when they refused to allow a white actor to play an oriental role in Miss Saigon.
Needless to say, in recent years his decency and integrity earned him the hatred of the media class. Largely because he believed in the right to bear arms he was latterly portrayed as a raving, fascist lunatic in the mainstream media.
I doubt you will ever encounter a more repulsive spectacle in all your live-long days than that of Michael Moore brandishing a photograph of a dead schoolgirl and asking Heston to apologise to her hometown for being the president of the NRA in his film Bowling For Columbine. Throughout their pointless, supposedly show-stopping encounter, Heston comes across exactly as you would expect him to - with dignity, unnecessary patience, and superhuman politeness when that patience is finally spent. Because Moore has no points of any kind to make, he comes across as a fat slob bullying an old man. Perhaps forty years earlier, he wouldn't have been so brave.
As a rule, the more the media elite bend over backwards to portray an individual as either a moron or a dinosaur, the more uncomfortable they are with the things he is saying, and the less able they are to defeat him any other way. In truth, of course, Heston was the thing they cannot abide: the endlessly polite, frustratingly logical voice of decency.
In particular, they hated the fact that they couldn't ever rile him. When Spike Lee - crap-to-middling director so square he calls his films 'joints' - opined that he should be shot with a .44 caliber Bulldog, Heston's devastating response was to wish him well in future projects. In a letter to the LA Times he wrote:
In '63, when I was marching for the freedom of black Americans, I was threatened by white men. In '99, active now for the freedom of all Americans, I'm threatened by a black man.
When Lee was still in diapers, I was working with Dr. Martin Luther King to break down the racist code in the Hollywood technical unions that denied blacks any place behind the cameras, paving the way for young filmmakers like Lee.
I want no apology from him; my character speaks for itself. As for his, he's responsible for that, of course. I wish him well on his next film.
In 2003, after Heston announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's, George Clooney, smirking under-writer of modern Hollywood's redundancy and sex idol to millions of unimaginative women, who seventy-five years ago might with luck have secured a job driving Clark Gable's car, joked, "Charlton Heston announced again today that he is suffering from Alzheimer's." Heston responded simply: "I don't know the man, never met him, never even spoken to him, but I feel sorry for George Clooney: one day he may get Alzheimer's disease." This painfully simple observation - which seemingly had not occurred to Clooney at the time - so shamed him that he wrote Heston a letter of apology.
His autobiography In The Arena, one of the half-dozen best volumes of memoirs by a Hollywood star, ends with a rousing account of how he managed to shame Warner Brothers into withdrawing Cop Killer (an album by rapper Tracy Marrow who, perhaps because he has a girl's name, records under the codename 'Ice-T'). This he achieved simply by walking into a Warners board meeting (which, as a major stock-holder, he was entitled to do) and calmly reading the lyrics, along with those of another track concerning the forced sodomy of two twelve year-old girls, to the assembled suits. Then he walked out and told the press. Job done.
Heston was born - just - in a world that was big enough for him, and he helped fight its last battles: for civil rights, and against Hitler. Then he became cinema's last hero. Latterly, with no causes left other than the right to apathy, he was a relic, a chunk of granite in a world of moral and intellectual and spiritual blancmanges. Mere mortals could never bring him down, so it was somehow poignant as well as tragic that it took a disease as cowardly as Alzheimer's to do what no man could even have attempted.
Yet even in the face of oblivion his attitude was characteristically stoic and inspiring. He released a public statement which read, in part:
I wanted to prepare a few words for you now, because when the time comes, I may not be able to. I've lived my whole life on the stage and screen before you. I've found purpose and meaning in your response. For an actor there's no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can't part with you, which is why I won't exclude you from this stage in my life.
For now, I'm not changing anything. I'll insist on work when I can; the doctors will insist on rest when I must. If you see a little less spring in my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway. I'm neither giving up nor giving in... but it's a fight I must someday call a draw. I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure. Please feel no sympathy for me. I don't. I just may be a little less accessible to you, despite my wishes. I also want you to know that I'm grateful beyond measure. My life has been blessed with good fortune...
William Shakespeare, at the end of his career, wrote his farewell through the words of Prospero, in The Tempest. It ends like this:
Be cheerful, sir. Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Thank you, and God bless you, everyone. Sincerely, Charlton Heston.
If ever a man was too good for his age, it was Charlton Heston.