If you’re very young or just forgetful, Charlton Heston — who died yesterday at 84 — is probably just the actor dude you can’t escape every Easter and Passover when The Ten Commandments pops up on the tube and shows Heston’s Moses parting the Red Sea. Or maybe you remember him getting ambushed at home by Michael Moore in the 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. Moore was right to confront Heston in his role as the president of the National Rifle Association. Just a year after the massacre at Columbine, Heston lept onstage at an NRA convention, raised an antique rifle above his head and told then presidential candidate Al Gore that he would have pull the gun “from my cold, dead hands.” Heston had a flair for dramatic gestures, not the least of which was his switch from liberal politics in the 1960s to right-wing conservatism thereafter. Moore took heavy shit for sandbagging an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. Maybe Moore deserved it, but Heston made himself a target. His fearlessness marked his best performances. And since this is a movie blog, let’s drop the politics and talk about Heston the actor, who was better than his carved-out-of-granite reputation. You have your faves, here are mine:
Planet of the Apes 1968
When Heston’s astronaut in a loincloth hisses, “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape,” screen immortality is acheived. Don’t believe me, then watch how Tim Burton blows the whole deal in his misbegotten 2001 remake, notable only for Heston’s cameo as dying ape who — holy cow! — won’t let the gun fall from his cold, dead, hairy hands.
Touch of Evil 1958
Heston helped the legendary director Orson Welles get his last studio film produced by agreeing to star in it as a Mexican narcotics cop. Not exactly type casting. But the film is an indisputable masterpiece and Welles used Heston’s square-jawed visage as a critique of self-righteousness.
Major Dundee 1965
Heston did the same picture-saving favor for maverick director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) that he did for Welles. The star even surrendered his paycheck for this Civil War saga that the studio butchered. It was partially restored on a 2005 DVD. Get the disc and watch Heston howl. He’s fierce.
Will Penny 1968
As an aging coboy at the end of a long trail, Heston gives a subtle, tender portrayal that is unlike anything he has done before or since. Even he called it his best work.
El Cid 1961
Playing the 11th-century warrior who kicked the Moors out of Spain, Heston lent Anthony Mann’s underrated historical drama his iconic presence, which is not to be sneezed at. Aside from Russell Crowe, who have we got now with a heroic stature to match Heston’s?
The Naked Jungle 1954
Everyone has a Heston guilty pleasure. I have no argument with cultists who favor The Omega Man (1971) or Soylent Green (1973). But my heart goes to this South American epic in which Heston takes on an army of red ants. Who do you think wins?
Heston won his first and only Oscar (the one Jack Lemmon deserved for Some Like It Hot) as the chariot-racing Jewish hero in the William Wyler epic that took 11 statuettes from the Academy, a feat only matched by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The film plods today, but it’s fun to watch from the prism of screenwriter Gore Vidal’s claim that Ben-Hur and his arch enemy Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, had been gay lovers in their youth. Boyd was told to act it that way, but Heston was left out of the loop. Even without the subtext, Heston holds his own with greatest stars in sandals, including Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
It’s gloom and doom time again. Seven of the last eight weekends have been down, down, down compared to the grosses of a year ago. With 21 taking the No. 1 spot for the second week with $15.3 million on the table, George Clooney’s much-touted Leatherheads, at $12.7 million, had to to eat the dust of the Vegas card-counting caper. Even worse for the Clooney-man is the fact that Nim’s Island, the lame family flick with Jodie Foster, also whupped his ass, coming in at No. 2 with $13.2 million. The worst news, from my perspective, is the tumble out of the Top Ten suffered by the Iraq War drama Stop-Loss, which dropped neary fifty percent to collect a piddling $2.3 million. At least that horror of a horrorflick, The Ruins, was dead on arrival. Which leaves us with this week’s big question: What’s up with audiences and football? The top two grossers are both idiot Adam Sandler comedies: The Waterboy and The Longest Yard. Not much box-office love for the gridiron movies I most admire: Friday Night Lights, North Dallas Forty, Semi-Tough, Any Given Sunday and the Burt Reynolds 1974 version of The Longest Yard. Why does football fumble at the multiplex? All reasonable arguments accepted.