Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Charlton Heston, Our "Moses"

Charlton Heston, 88 Today! RIP

He was no girlie-man, that Charlton Heston. The epic screen actor didn’t do small or sensitive or morally complex; he did big, commanding and utterly sure of himself. His signature roles were all Great Men, largely untroubled by indecision, doubt or mixed motives. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, it wasn’t that litany of plagues that Moses called down upon Pharaoh’s Egypt that made him so riveting; it was Heston’s air of terrible certainty, his ruthless, implacable rectitude. His screen persona wasn’t dumb, but he didn’t much value intelligence or even need it. What he lacked in smarts he made up for with conviction and a peculiarly inflexible strength. He was insistently, incurably holier than thou, and he operated from the gut.
And what a gut. With his strapping body, a Mount Rushmore face and a basso profundo voice rivaling that of his one-time director and co-star Orson Welles (in one of Heston’s better if most unlikely roles, as a Mexican cop in 1958’s Touch of Evil), he was genetically engineered to play the hero in a cinematic age before heroes became anti-heroes. His acting style was a projection of his physique: lean, beefy and stiff. He was All Man, as they used to say so unself-consciously at mid-century, and to put him in a role that required much nuance or subtlety — not to mention any hint of a poetic, dare we say feminine side — was to flirt with unintended comedy.
Heston’s last notable performance — although there’s no evidence that he wasn’t fueled, as always, by conviction — was as the president of the National Rifle Association in 1998-2003. He had once been a liberal, marching for civil rights in the South, but, like his fellow actor and ex-Democrat Ronald Reagan, had become an archconservative. The NRA, as the Republican Party had done with Reagan, jumped at the chance to recruit a rangy screen patriarch to its cause. All of Heston’s signal qualities — his good looks, his booming voice, and above all his famous singleness of purpose, untainted by the slightest scintilla of doubt — made him a nuttily effective spokesman for the gun lobby. There was Heston in 2000, waving a rifle over his head and accusing Al Gore of plotting to take away his Second Amendment rights; it was the brandishing of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments all over again. “Hey,” an NRA vice president chortled, “Moses is on our side.”

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