April 13, 2008

“He Was Better Than You”


Perhaps it’s a little late to be writing a eulogy for Charlton Heston. After all, he died over a week ago, which likely means that most Americans wouldn’t even recognize the name anymore. We’re funny that way.

            For that reason alone I should probably let it slide, but I found myself growing increasingly aggravated as I read the obituaries. They all said exactly the same thing, whether they respected the man or reviled him: He played Moses. He won an Oscar for Ben-Hur. He’s best remembered for Planet of the Apes. He marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King, then (ironically) supported Ronald Reagan and became president of the National Rifle Association.

            Personally, I don’t see anything ironic about marching for civil rights before becoming president of the NRA, but that’s beside the point. Charlton Heston has meant a great deal to me ever since I was very young, and he always will. To some of us, he was much more than three movies and some political activism.

            When I was five, I saw Planet of the Apes for the first time (it’s a film I’ve only come to admire more with each passing year). That was also the first time I not only came to recognize an actor, but also decided that I wanted to see every film in which that actor appeared. Being that these were pre-VCR days, I had to be satisfied with whatever films played on TV (not many) and whatever came to theaters. Back then, I thought he’d be playing Colonel Taylor in every film, and that every film would involve talking apes. I was disappointed to learn that wasn’t the case, but my disappointment was short-lived. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to become obsessed with Charlton Heston at the beginning of an extraordinary run. In the decade that followed Planet of the Apes, he not only appeared in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but Soylent Green, Midway, Earthquake, Airport ‘75, Two-Minute Warning, Gray Lady Down, and The Mountain Men. Most important of all, he also starred one of the Greatest Films of All Time, The Omega Man. (I’d even place the weary murderous resignation of Omega Man ahead of the bitter misanthropy of Planet of the Apes in terms of films that have inspired me personally.)

            In order to maintain my Charlton Heston fixation between films, I started tracking down other things. Interviews and magazine stories at first. Then in 1978 I picked up his hefty published diaries, The Actor’s Life, as soon as they were released. I also have his later autobiography, a recording of Heston reading the Old Testament, another of him reading Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, and an audiobook in which he explains Plato and Aristotle. I listened to it again a few months ago, and must admit he does a pretty fair job. (I still need to pick up the one where he explains Nietzsche.) God help me, I even bought that miserable Stump album, because it included the minor novelty hit “Charlton Heston” (which they cleverly rhymed with “put his vest on”).

            As the years ground on and VCRs allowed me to explore his filmography more deeply, I watched him battle a corrupt and sweaty Orson Welles in the brilliant Touch of Evil, and fight an army of voracious flesh-eating ants in Naked Jungle. He was in The Greatest Show on Earth, a couple of versions of Peer Gynt, some Shakespeare, and The Agony and the Ecstasy (which, admittedly, was kind of goofy—especially the scene where Michelangelo steps onto his balcony and sees the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel form itself in the clouds).

            I was also lucky enough over the years to meet other people who were likewise obsessed with Charlton Heston—mostly as the result of either Planet of the Apes or Omega Man. In the early nineties, my friend John and I went through a period in which we, together with our friend Linda, watched dozens of Charlton Heston films. Part of it was a game of sorts—waiting to hear him say “Oh . . . my . . . God” (a line he utters in every single movie he ever made). But soon it grew into something more than that. We soon recognized that Charlton Heston movies—any Charlton Heston movie—had a life lesson to offer. Not just a moral lesson, but a lesson in day-to-day manliness. You want to know how to be manly, just grab a Charlton Heston movie and emulate his character. It’s not simply a matter of lifting heavy objects and beating people up—it’s maintaining a stalwart, ethical strength in a world that hates you. (Saying “oh . . . my . . . God” real dramatic-like helps, too.)

            Now, I know that very notion makes a lot of people wince, but that in itself says something about what we’ve become. Second only to my dad, Charlton Heston was the greatest teacher I ever had when it came to dealing with the world. In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, for instance, he taught me that sometimes the only right and good thing to do is blow the whole fucking world to smithereens.

            I must admit, though, when he released a little book called To Be a Man in the late nineties, I thought it sounded like the angry mutterings of someone’s bitter, drunken grandpa, shortly before he fired off a warning shot over the heads of those damn kids who were walking across his yard again.

            Still, by that point when most everyone had turned against him and he had become the standby punch line for jokes about Right Wing nuts, I had more respect for him than ever. Not because I agreed with everything he said (I didn’t) but because he had the guts to hold tight to some very unpopular beliefs—especially in a town like Hollywood, where namby-pamby liberalism rules with an iron fist.

            Yes, the same sort of stubbornness can be found in a lot of really terrible and dangerous people—but none of them were in The Omega Man or, for that matter, two of the three movies released in Sensurround.

            I think of it this way: agree or disagree with his views, whether he was marching in Selma or lobbying for gun owners rights, he was standing up for personal liberty and our right to hold unpopular opinions.

            He had, in a way, become the lead character in a Charlton Heston movie. Colonel Taylor, Robert Morgan in Omega Man—even John the Baptist, Ben-Hur and Moses—were crazy voices in the wilderness (quite literally so, in the case of John the Baptist), men who dared to express an unpopular opinion in an unfriendly world. Not that he was always right and not that he always won, but he gave it a damn good shot, and though he could admit when he made a mistake, his core convictions never wavered. Not many of us can say that.

            The disheartening thing is that while people for some reason still seem to be talking about that useless Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, Charlton Heston—who, again however you choose to perceive it—left a serious mark on the landscape, will in all likelihood only be remembered as “that guy from the religious movies who became a gun nut.”


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