After a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, the great movie star Charlton Heston has died. He was never the best actor (although his Oscar for 1959's "Ben Hur" says otherwise) but he was something the movies hadn't seen before: a flamboyantly macho man with an amazing flair for the melodramatic. If Bette Davis had been born a strapping outdoorsman from Michigan, she would have been Heston. It didn't matter whether he was playing Moses, John the Baptist, Michelangelo, El Cid or the last man on Earth, he was always Chuck - this sexy, intimidating American with a surprise righteous streak.
Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy had their crusader moments, but Heston was the movie's freedom fighter. He and Sidney Poitier were two of the great moral stars - the force of their conviction could be shaming. Heston, too, was a Civil Rights man, having called Martin Luther King a "20th century Moses" and walking with the reverend in 1963's march on Washington. His admiration for King was evident in his acting. At both his best and his most shameless, he was a preacher, railing against this injustice or that. What made him such a surprise to watch, especially when he was sermonizing - and the screenwriters never seemed to run out of things for him to sermonize about - what made him an entertainer was the bang he gave the preaching. Heston succeeded at playing these courageous, imposing, appalled, beleaguered, almost classically handsome men (too much forehead, too many teeth) by overplaying them. This manly man's secret weapon was his histrionics -- it was camp. Even at his most ridiculous, Heston was hard to resist.
His lugubrious outrage distinguished him from the Gregory Pecks, John Waynes, Glenn Fords, and later the Clint Eastwoods and Arnold Schwarzeneggers. Heston needed to raise his voice. And, oh, the things would that come out of his mouth. He was the most reliably quotable movie star - every line finished with a exclamation point. He even became the face of the NRA like it was another of his Hollywood parts.
"Repent!!" -- "The Greatest Story Ever Told," 1965
"You did it! You cut up his brain, you bloody baboon!" -- "Planet of the Apes," 1968
"It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They're making our food out of people. Next thing they'll be breeding us like cattle for food. You've gotta tell them.
You've gotta tell them!" -- "Soylent Green," 1973
"Climb baby, climb!" -- "Airport 1975," 1975
One of Heston's favorite of his own performances was the ranch hand he played in "Will Penny" (1968), a so-so Western that let him do a little romance and little comedy and enter John Wayne territory. But he'd already out-Wayned Wayne -- with a kind of subtlety, too -- three years earlier with the title part in "Major Dundee," Sam Peckinpah's very good revisionist calvary western, whose production Heston gallantly fought to keep alive. He also used his cachet to get Orson Welles hired to make "Touch of Evil," where Heston gave my favorite of his performances. He played a Mexican narcotics detective looking for his girlfriend, Janet Leigh. The part should have been a joke, but Heston played it straight. This was a slim, tight deliberate piece of acting. Welles gave him a style to keep, and Heston played within its bounds. Not even that mustache could upstage him. He was sexy here. He was under control, even as the world appeared to be spinning in the opposite direction.
As the Hollywood production paradigm shifted from biblical-historical epics to post-biblical ahistorical disaster pictures, there he was as peeved as ever. By the 1970s, the world he was trying to preserve, better, or overcome in the 1950s and 1960s had collapsed on itself. The people he was trying to save or set free were gone. At the end of the end of everything, it was alway just Chuck. And somehow that seemed fine.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
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