Might done right

Onscreen and off, actor was a force to reckon with, bringing power and stature to larger-than-life roles and great filmmakers' pictures

Charlton Heston 1923-2008

April 07, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Charlton Heston, who died Saturday at the age of 84, seemed to be built for the spectacles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

He was never an athlete like Burt Lancaster, who took a pass on the role that made Heston a superstar, Ben-Hur. But no movie star ever looked like more of an athlete than Heston, with his comic-book wedge of a torso, his Dick Tracy-square jaw and the competitive glint in his eye, which also held signs of something deeper - a wounded masculinity. That's what made him shine in Ben-Hur.

He was a self-made superhero. As a kid he worked in a steel mill on Chicago's South Side and mastered archery and marksmanship. But from the time he dropped out of the rifle club, chess team and football to concentrate on high school and community theater, he was a man of the stage.

And it was on the stage that he first learned how to focus his gnarly temperament and command imaginary landscapes like a conquering hero. His knack for italicizing his own physicality and magnetizing everything around him is what drew the spectacle-makers to him, whether they were working in Westerns, period epics or apocalyptic fantasies.

Cecil B. DeMille used him as the circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). After he played Moses for DeMille in The Ten Commandments (1956), the big-picture men came calling. One after another, they signed him up: William Wyler for the ranch foreman in The Big Country (1958) as well as Ben-Hur (1959), Anthony Mann for the title role in El Cid (1961), Carol Reed for Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Franklin Schaffner for a love-starred knight in The War Lord (1965) and an astronaut in Planet of the Apes (1968).

To anchor these sprawling shows required something that went beyond technique - the quality of stature. Not all the training and invention in the world can supply it when an actor doesn't have it, and without it kings and last-men-on-Earth can bring a super-production tumbling down like Oliver Stone's Alexander.

Heston was that rarity - not the It Boy, but the It Man, if you define "It" as the elusive something that could convince audiences he could keep an empire from crumbling or the human species from completely disappearing.

These roles called for cleverness as well as conviction. Watching The Ten Commandments on its umpteenth TV run a few weeks ago, I couldn't help thinking that in its own showbiz-pious way it was far more clever than the DreamWorks cartoon The Prince of Egypt.

DeMille and Heston had the sense to toy with Moses' charisma, making him a stalwart fellow even when he was a prince of Egypt. He was a humane slave driver, while Yul Brynner's Rameses was an imperious, double-dealing schemer. Everyone in every class of Egyptian life seemed to spend their spare time siding with one or the other, and Heston's exuberant physicality provided them with something to root for. Heston gave melodramatic traction to Moses' emergence as liberator of the Hebrews and spokesman for universal freedom.

In real life, too, Heston often used his power for good, to support our greatest filmmakers. In his memoir The Actor's Life, he recalled, "When I called Universal and asked them [who would direct Touch of Evil], they said, `That's not set yet, but we have Orson Welles to play the heavy.' I made the obvious comment, `Why not have him direct, too? He's pretty good.' It genuinely seemed to strike them as a radical suggestion, as though I'd asked to have my mother direct the picture."

He thus paved the way for Welles' magnificent (if not triumphant) return to American filmmaking with a virtuoso border-town film noir after years spent making movies on the run in Europe. The studio truncated Welles' cut and tossed it into theaters in 1958. But when a team of filmmakers moved to reconstruct a version closer to Welles' original vision 40 years later, Heston lent his clout.

When I called Heston at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home to ask about Touch of Evil (1958), he answered the phone himself after a morning swim, and related with warmth and humor how working with Welles had honed his own self-knowledge.

"I have to confess a sense of confidence is something I never lacked," he said. "When I was first getting into Broadway, my wife got work before I did because the parts I was the right age for I wasn't right for: I was 6 [foot] 3, with a broken nose and a bass voice - I didn't look or sound right saying, `Tennis anyone?'"

When he reminisced about those days with Welles, Heston said, the maestro "gave me a great deal as a director. `Oh, my boy,' he'd say in his own great booming voice, `you might develop a tenor range, you know.'"

Heston once again stood up for a maverick director when he starred for Sam Peckinpah in the cavalry Western Major Dundee (1965). In Dundee, he showed himself a master of complex male bonding with co-star Richard Harris. The whole movie rests on the push-pull chemistry of Heston at his most stoically magnetic and Harris at his most gallant and unpredictable.

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