Saturday, April 05, 2008

Charlton Heston, RIP

Rare indeed are the personalities who can be described as "legend" or "icon." With the passing of Charlton Heston at the age of 84, the world of cinema and the world at large has lost someone for whom even those terms are perhaps too small.

While in recent years most probably knew him best from annual Easter airings of The Ten Commandments, or perhaps his latter-years role as president of the NRA, for me Charlton Heston will always be George Taylor, the wayward time traveller at the center of 1968's Planet of the Apes (celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year).

It's hard for me to convey just how much of an impact the original Apes had on my ten year old self when I first saw it, or the impact it has continued to have for the innumerable times I've seen it since. The deliciously dystopic tale, with its juxtaposition of biting social satire and edge-of-your-seat chills, with Heston as the misanthropic astronaut forced to become humanity's last champion, is grim sci-fi at its very best.

Clad for most of the film in a torn loincloth and acting against performers in rubber ape prosthetics, Heston plays the embittered Taylor with total conviction, lending every frame utter credibility. The movie's final image of the humbled Heston collapsed in front of a decayed Statue of Liberty remains one of filmdom's truly indelible moments.

This was the power of Charlton Heston the actor: to make his on-screen alter egos larger than life, yet riven with human complexity. During a staggering six decade career, the chiseled, gravel-voiced star, an Oscar winner for 1959's Ben-Hur, played cowboys, crusaders, rogues, royalty, and historical figures ranging from Moses to Andrew Jackson to Brigham Young. Even in small parts, like a self-reflexive cameo in 1993's Wayne's World 2, he brought his trademark gravitas.

Though he took a political turn towards the right in his later years that I strongly disagreed with, there's no question that Heston accomplished a great deal in his life, including his fight for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King. He even went so far as to lead the Hollywood contingent in the 1963 march to Washington and King's "I have a dream" speech.

It's for this reason that I found the actor's final film appearance, as himself in Michael Moore's 2003 documentary Bowling For Columbine, so difficult to watch. Under verbal assault by Moore for his stewardship of the NRA, Heston, confused and unsteady, already suffering from the Alzheimer's that would eventually claim his life, was portrayed as out-of-touch and racist. It was simplistic and unfair, and a far cry from the screen persona that had cemented his place in history.

Ultimately, Heston was simply too large a personality to be easily categorized. He was the quintessential movie star, one of the last remaining standard-bearers from a simpler time, and it's doubtful that Hollywood will ever see his like again.


Parvez said...

Thank you Zaki for the sober eulogy. I think your analysis of Heston's appearance in Bowling for Columbine was spot on. In fact, I too needed your eulogy to prevent that appearance as being my lasting impression of the man. Thanks.

Zaki said...

Thanks for the kind words. Glad I was able to echo your feelings.