Sunday, April 06, 2008

He Was Legend: Charlton Heston, R.I.P.

I was discussing movies with a friend recently, and he told me the story of Lawrence Olivier's remark to Dustin Hoffman on "method acting" on the set of Marathon Man. Method acting is the idea that an actor should internalize the persona of the character he is playing in order the play that character more effectively. Marlon Brando is one of the most famous of the method actors, along with Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and Robert DeNiro. It originated at the Group Theatre in 1930s New York, and was furthered by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in later decades.

Hoffman was supposed to play a character who was tired and worn out, so he stayed up all the previous night. When Hoffman explained to Olivier, his costar in the movie who had a distaste for method acting, why he was so exhausted, Olivier allegedly quipped, "Try acting sometime."

Charlton Heston, who died Sunday at the age of 83, tried acting sometime. He was definitely of an older school, and once said of method acting, "If you get tied up with your own psyche, digging into your own belly button, you may learn something about yourself, but I'm not convinced you're going to find significant creative truth about some other character."

Heston, like other classical actors, didn't rely on channeling the emotions of the character; instead, he mastered the craft of acting. If you want to see this on display with another actor of this more traditional school, pop in a DVD of the Ten Commandments some time, and watch the scenes in which Yul Brunner, another practitioner of the craft of acting, and Heston played opposite each other. This was true acting by men who had mastered their art. They didn't need to feel what their characters felt: they knew how to act.

In today's cinema, you see the product of the increasingly advanced technology, which can make up for an actor's weaknesses. Today's actor does not have to pay as much attention to where he is facing or how he moves in a scene. The camera and fx people can take care of that. Actors like Heston, trained classically on the stage, needed no special effects or inventive camera work to do the job for them. They made the scene all by themselves.

Heston thrived in a cinematic era tailor-made for the square-jawed, athletic actor: the age of the epic. Who else could play Moses and improve on him? (Moses stuttered) The movies Heston made could not be done today. Although of all the forms of media movies are the least prone to the postmodernist denial of the grand metanarratives (those box office receipts do have their allure), such movies as Heston is best known for are an endangered species: historical epics in which the hero fights for the Good--and wins. We still have epics today, but for some reason filmmakers feel constrained either to place them in a fantasy setting, or, if they attempt history, they seem to feel obligated to pollute it with ludicrous politically correct anachronisms. You get either the Lord of the Rings (for which, let me make clear, I am sincerely thankful), in which heroes live--in another world, or The Kingdom of Heaven, in which you get Orlando Bloom making a speech to the besieged residents of Jerusalem which sounds less like a rallying cry and more like Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech.

There are exceptions to this generalization, the most remarkable of them being Gladiator, which, ironically, was produced by the same director as The Kingdom of God.

Ben Hur was probably Heston's best film, and was one of the best films of any era. I saw it again recently, and was struck by the power of every aspect of the film. I showed it for some of my students at our monthly "Classic Movie Theatre" at Highlands Latin School, and although it was long, there wasn't a student in the room (and I shouldn't need even to mention how tough a crowd modern students can be) who wasn't riveted by it.

He also became an unlikely star of the science fiction genre, playing the lead in one of the best science fiction films ever made: The Planet of the Apes. He also starred in Soylent Green and the Omega Man (based on the same book as was Will Smith's I am Legend), both of which are classics of the genre.

Heston was a conservative in a Hollywood dominated by the political left. In the 1980s, at the height of the scare over a "nuclear winter" (one in a long series of scares which includs global cooling, but the most recent example of which is global warming), Paul Newman took it upon himself to preach the nuclear winter gospel around the country. Heston hit the road to follow Newman, giving the other side at Newman's every stop. The controversy was consummated in a live television debate between Heston and Newman which turned out to be the most informative and articulate expression of both sides of the issue that had yet been seen.

Heston's death comes within a few weeks of that of his friend William F. Buckley. But is wasn't only their conservatism that united them. Heston read one of Buckley's columns on a matter of mutual interest: "Here I'd thought all along that it was your prose that impressed me," he told Buckley, in a letter that ran in the June 12, 1981 edition of Buckley's National Review Magazine, "or your magazine, or even your wry and disheveled urbanity." He continued:
Not so, I now perceive. Our bond is far deeper and more instinctual: we are Brothers in Peanut Butter. Think of the happy hours we can spend debating the merits of Skippy versus Deaf Smith County. When you add peanuts to commercial blends, should they be dry-roasted or salted? Does cashew butter count? ... Why do hotels laugh when you order peanut butter from room service? (Because they are knaves and fools, that's why. You must carry your own in a plastic container, Bill, surely you know that.) In any event, I see our relationship has entered a new dimension. I look forward to exploring it.
He was, in other words, in addition to being a famous actor, a normal person--a very extraordinary normal person. It says something about him that, in a Hollywood famous for its serial relationships, he was married to his wife Lydia for 64 years.

Heston narrated a popular recording of the New Testament. But he not only read it: he believed it. He was a confessing Christian, and now that he is dead, he has undoubtedly met Someone who looks more like God than he did.


Anonymous said...

excellent post
Two things of note:(1) It's the Kingdom of Heaven not the Kingdom of Gods,(2)and yes that speech was extremely weak. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

Martin Cothran said...


Yes. Thanks. I corrected the movie title.

Anonymous said...

I am glad you finally showed Ben Hur in the Classic Movie Theatre. Always well worth the length. I hope my brothers were there to see it.

Anonymous said...

I hope St. Peter made him check his guns at the door.