Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

Our loyal reader Cathy of Alex mentioned the other day that it sometimes seems this site should be renamed " Requiescat in Pace" based on all the obits we do. I wondered about that earlier myself, and in a very imperfect way speculated on why this might be.

Of course, leave it to a professional writer to boil it down to a few words that explain it all. In his piece on the memorial service for William F. Buckley Jr., Terry Teachout summarized it thus: "Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life." And I thought to myself: "That's it."

In their own way, the obituaries we write tell our stories as much as they do those of the deceased. For when they die we feel the need to reflect on the particular role they played in our lives. Under the influence of the world they open to us they help shape us, form our preferences, our tastes, our mannerisms. They become the people we admire, or decry, or want to emulate. We want to get the girl like Cary Grant did, we want to save the day just like John Wayne; we want to be Mickey Mantle hitting the game-winning homer, or we want to be the pitcher that strikes him out. We want to be like them, we want to convert them, we want to best them. And when they die, something more than a little piece of yourself dies with them; it's a piece of the world they helped to create.

Charlton Heston created a larger-than-life world, and it's no wonder: he parted the Red Sea, won a chariot race for the ages, discovered the secret of the Planet of the Apes, baptized Christ, rescued a circus from bankruptcy, died trying to save Ava Gardner from an earthquake that devastated Los Angeles, and warned everyone that Soylent Green was people. And that was just for starters. Charlton Heston came from an era in which epics required more than acting in front of a blue screen, when battle scenes were created not on computers but instead on massive, detailed sets with featured thousands of flesh-and-blood extras.

There were those who scoffed when he won an Oscar for Ben-Hur, and he probably would have been the first to agree that there were more gifted actors out there. (Jimmy Stewart, for instance, was nominated for Anatomy of a Murder that same year.) That underestimates the effect Heston had on a movie. Look at Ben-Hur for example - there's an epic sea battle in the first half that would have been the centerpiece of most movies; in this story, remembered as it was for the chariot race, it was just another scene. Movies like this require more than just acting - they need someone who can hold the story together, who can keep the pieces of such an epic from spiraling out of control. It was Heston's presence, his voice, the power that radiated from his person, that helped to hold these movies together.

Not every movie he made was an epic, and that was part of his appeal. Nobody would think of Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green as great art, but they were great fun. Heston could chew the scenery with the best of them, and these movies contained some of his greatest lines. In making Earthquake and Airport 75 and the TV series The Colbys (the Dynasty spinoff) Heston demonstrated that not everything had to have a message, or be weighed down with gravitas. Actors were allowed to make popular movies back then (or at least movies that paid well), not just prestige "films." They were even allowed to make fun of their own images, as Heston did often. It's a lesson more actors ought to follow today. The industry might find itself in better financial shape if they did.

There was more to Charlton Heston than acting, of course. He was a longtime fighter for civil rights who walked the walk with the marchers. He headed the Screen Actors Guild and the National Rifle Association (talk about two extremes), and did both with power and style. He watched the Democratic Party betray the beliefs he had grown up with, and joined the Republicans - as did another actor who felt abandoned by the Democrats, Ronald Reagan. There was never a battle from which he backed down, and he more than held his own with the best (and worst) of them.

In later years he checked into rehab out of concern that he might be developing an alcohol problem, but in all likelihood it was instead the onset of Alzheimer's, the disease that also claimed his friend and political ally Ronald Reagan. It was a curious, but somehow appropriate coincidence that he died one day after the public memorial service for Bill Buckley, for whose National Review he had done so many commercials throughout the years.

It's very easy, when someone dies, to say that "they don't make 'em like that anymore." We probably say that too often, about too many people whose accomplishments are anything but unique. But Charlton Heston was a man who took on those epic roles and pulled them off, and was as large on screen as he was humble off it. His was a life well-lived, both in movies and in real life.

They don't make 'em like that anymore.

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