James Wolcott’s recent sentence about Bette Davis’s crowning flick popped into my head when I heard of Charlton Heston’s passing.
Heston was the most grown-up, adult man of my cinematic youth. He didn’t have the artistry of Burt Lancaster, or the sheer charisma of Kirk Douglas, but he was a Man, with that capital M.
I saw all their movies on what was charmingly called “The 4:30 Movie” on WABC in New York every day after school in the midseventies. These films were the last wave (or gasp) of old Hollywood. They were in color, just one signal that we weren’t in the same place as the days of Gable and Tracy. But we also clearly weren’t in the same place as that time’s Dog Day Afternoon and Marathon Man. I didn’t see those movies as a kid, but I remember the commercials for them, sitting amid my beloved 4:30 Movie, and I wasn’t very attracted to them.
But I was enthralled by The Greatest Show on Earth because of Heston. I thought Brad Braden was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. Even the character name was no-holds-barred manly. No wonder Betty Hutton was agog. Surely Harrison Ford based some of Indiana Jones on Brad: the hat, the leather jacket, the whip! Then there was The Naked Jungle. The title itself titillated the school girl, and again, there was that compelling body, finally pulling Eleanor Parker into its nooks and creases. I think they played Ben-Hur several times a year, which was fine with me. Nothing fires a young girl’s imagination like a chariot race with matching studs (read that as you will). Even Michelangelo---I clearly remember The Agony and the Ecstasy during Easter week one year-—was virility and passion incarnate.
Pauline Kael captured Heston perfectly in her review of Planet of the Apes:
"With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a god-like hero; built for strength, he is an archetype of what makes Americans win. He represents American power -- and he has the profile of an eagle."
Heston acted with that body to give authenticity to these Men. He wasn’t just saying the words—he was bringing a truth to the characters by his knowledge and expertise as a physically powerful man himself. There is a sense of confidence and entitlement that can’t be faked, and it made him the distinctive actor that he was.
Of course we watched The Ten Commandments in the evening at Easter, but his Moses didn’t impress me as much as his Brad. Maybe because there could be no good fantasy life with “the chosen of the Chosen People.” Much too holy for such thoughts.
I didn’t keep up much with Charlton as an adult. Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green are in the DNA of my generation, and he was great in both. I thought he was an excellent Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s Three/Four Musketeers, and I loved his guest appearance on Friends with Joey Tribbiani.
I also didn’t pay much attention to his politics, one way or another. It was too much of a buzz kill to the zing of my youthful fantasies about him.
Angel: You are a sourpuss, aren't you?
Brad Braden: Yeah.
Angel: You want to bite somebody?
Brad Braden: Yeah.
Angel: Well, pick your spot.