Go ahead and pick your Heston:
The academy award-winner?
Ben Hur was probably the first “serious” movie I sat through as a kid – the first time I ever got that a movie could be more than simple yuks and scenery, that a story could mean more than what was being put in front of you. Heston won his Oscar almost fifty years ago, before I was born – and the movie still amazes me.
Heston was an amazing actor. Brad Carlson links to an excellent video retrospective of Heston’s film career.
And nobody, anywhere, writes about actors like Sheila O’Malley does:
My brother Brendan and I watched The Ten Commandments on the night before Easter, and expressed amazement, for the 100th time, how incredible Heston is, how inevitable. …even today, lulled to sleep by CGI effects, there is something stunning and terrifying about the Red Sea parting, well done! – but none of it would matter a whit if it weren’t for Heston’s commanding (pun) performance. He had no fear. He embodied courage, and was able to portray it larger than life. This is something NO actors have today – NONE – it is no longer the “style” of acting, and no longer in vogue. And that’s fine. Things don’t have to stay the same forever. But at least we could look back at one of the greats and say, “Ah. There. That is how it was done. That is how it should have been done.”
How about the “other” Charlton Heston, the man that stood for his beliefs at every turn – the one who marched on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King, at the height of his career…
…at a time when social activism was not the fashion in Hollywood.
In 1961, he attended a premier of one of his movies in Oklahoma. The theater was segregated; he joined the picket line. At a time when it was by no means politically expedient to do so, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He was, throughout his adult life, a staunch opponent of communism, McCarthyism, and racial segregation.
A quarter-century later, Heston went on to spend the last fifteen years of his working life tirelessly fighting to protect the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans…
…which, for many people who were born too late to see Heston’s glory years on the big screen, was the Heston they knew best.
The Charlton Heston that drove more than a few people over the edge, helping cement the career of at least one polemicist, and assuring that he’d never do lunch in Hollywood again? That was him.
Few did more than Charleston Heston to keep the stinking paws of the damned dirty apes off the firearms of law-abiding Americans.
Just like the patriarch Moses he played in the magnificent 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic, he did not live to see the promised land. But if an originalist majority on SCOTUS prevails in the soon-to-be-decided Heller case he will have died just short of the River Jordan.
Of course I owe that Charlton Heston – the guy who helped galvanize millions to turn the tide on two issues that mean a lot to me and many like me, civil rights that are seen as two sides of a coin, but should not be – something, too.
Or maybe the guy in a city and business and society full of libertines and faux libertarians, who achieved far beyond anyone’s dreams and ascended to the pinnacle of a career that he’d stumbled into and yet mastered, and devoted a fair chunk of his life to doing what was right and, at the end of the day, stayed married to his high school sweetheart for an entire lifetime?
How do you reconcile all those different Charlton Hestons?
You don’t. You appreciate the entire package on its own terms. Back to Sheila, who comes up with the words I was flailing at trying to find on the show yesterday, to capture an ideal that as usual Sheila nails without effort. I’ll be slathering on the emphasis:
The most stunning tribute of all, it takes my breath away to this day, is Richard Dreyfuss’ tribute. He wrote it for National Review – obviously a publication with political leanings that has nothing to do with who Richard Dreyfuss is, and how he votes. But, as I have said repeatedly on my blog, as I have chased people away from my site who seem constitutionally unable to play by my rules, as I have stated in my comment policy: when you are dealing with art, and the appreciation thereof, politics must take a backseat. At least if you want to have a worthwhile conversation. And then there are those who say, “I liked Charlton Heston BECAUSE of his politics” and that is just as idiotic. His work transcends. He was an actor, first and foremost, a “great pretender”. So talk about his work, please – there is plenty there to keep us chatting for 100 years at least! Nobody “owns” Charlton Heston. Nobody “owns” John Wayne. The most flaming liberal in the world could appreciate and love Red River, and those who put politics at the forefront are completely missing the point. What we are talking about here is love. And these actors who touch us, who get beneath our skins, who create something indelible … transcend all of that. The editors at National Review knew that, and so did Richard Dreyfuss.
I agree – and am awash in profound respect for a man that worked so tirelessly at the love he had for his craft, his country and its principles, and his family. Whose entire life is a monument to his love for all three.
As with Ronald Reagan (an underappreciated actor, albeit nowhere near Heston’s league), the different parts went together to make the whole man. You can – you have to, as Sheila correctly notes – appreciate them separately, and keep your art and your politics in separate silos. As Richard Dreyfus does, in the piece Sheila called out, and that you need to read. Written right after Heston’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s was made public five and a half years ago, it’s almost too full of perfect quotes. I’m going to grab two of them
I believe that films like Ben Hur were conceived because Heston was there to make them. He allowed these stories to be told because he was there to play the parts. …When I saw Charlton Heston as a kid, he took me far, far away, to places few actors could go. The only other American actor so comfortable outside of this era was Wayne, and Heston could time travel farther. Both held the magical alchemy that made me forget the commonplace of here and now completely. John Wayne allowed us into our American past. Heston, because of his perfectly male face, the depth of his voice, the measured almost antique rhythm of his speech, the oddly innocent commitment that allowed him to dive without looking into the role, took me farther, before the common era, as they say.
Somehow he was able to cut the myriad strings that connect us to our current lives, so he could inhabit our imagined past and imagined future so perfectly. So well did he do this that his discomfort was obvious when he played in the Now (actually, make that my discomfort, because he more than likely had a ball in the rare instances when he played something current). If it wasn’t the past it was the future. I could never have gotten to Ancient Rome without him, nor Ape City.
It has become fashionable to characterize his politics; almost as if his politics were a separate thing, like Diana’s popularity. People are either defensive or patronizing (if not contemptuous). I can only say I wish all the liberals and all the conservatives I knew had the class and forbearance he has. Would I be as patient or serene when so many had showed me such contempt, or tried to make me feel stupid or small? I doubt it, truly I do. This is dignity, simply and completely. A much more important quality than political passion at the end of the day, and far more lacking, don’t you think?
That may be the biggest thing to take away from Heston; to love what you do, to fight for what you believe in, to live a life you’re proud of, and to do it all with grace.
In remembering the man, his life, his accomplishments, his impact on this world – and as Dreyfus noted, the man in which they were all wrapped up and and coexisted so famously – you can note them all in parallel, and fondly remember them all.
And so I do.
And rest in peace, great American icon. You will not be forgotten.
I’ll take all of the Charlton Hestons. Thanks.
While Heston tirelessly fought to protect peoples’ civil liberties, within the context of this thread I shall squash them without mercy, and remove all snarky or off-topic comments.