Charlton Heston died tonight at the age of 83. One of the great leading men of Hollywood, a man of limited range but unlimited charisma, whose wealth of memorable screen performances fortunately overwhelmed his increasingly outspoken politics, Heston never quietly enjoyed his fame, but never squandered it.
Charlton Heston's defining performance, at least for members of my generation (whether most of us realize it or not), probably came in Wayne's World 2. He played a bit part, listed in the credits as "Good Actor," brought on in a gimmick to replace a man giving Wayne directions at a gas station whom Wayne complains isn't a good actor. Heston delivers the man's lines again, but does so with such pathos, such richness, that Wayne's mugging and crying in front of the camera almost seems genuine -- and Heston's Golden Hollywood baritone overacting fits the role perfectly.
In that movie, he was an elder statesman gently sending up his own deserved legend, and for a man whose most memorable performances would seem laughably stilted if delivered today, it perfectly fit both the movie and his history. Unsurprisingly, he played virtually the same role, though not for laughs, in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet three years later; also unsurprisingly, having already pulled the trick off once, this time he was much less memorable.
His bit part in Wayne's World 2 may have been the defining role for his latter-day acting career, but, sadly, it wasn't what defined him. That came in Bowling for Columbine, when guerrilla documentarian Michael Moore depicted him, as NRA president, as the personification of much that was wrong with America's gun culture. The movie was released in 2002, the same year that Heston announced he suffered from symptoms of Alzheimer's disease; he stepped down as NRA president the next year. Michael Moore later suffered a backlash from his treatment of the aging Heston (which Moore defended by saying he had tried to "not make Heston look as evil as he actually was"), but it was the apogee of Heston's transformation from great actor into political sideshow.
Heston's closest analog may have been Ronald Reagan, as they were both Hollywood Golden Age actors whose later careers largely transitioned into conservative politics. But while Reagan's presidency was perhaps the final death knell in the career of Ronald Reagan, B-movie star of Bedtime for Bonzo, Heston's latter-day persona could never push away the memory of his greatest work, like Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur, or Planet of the Apes. By the end of his career, when he began to take roles which winked at his status as a living legend, his very presence on the screen unconsciously recalled a half-century in front of the camera.
Whenever I think of Charlton Heston, though, I think of Touch of Evil, where he played a Mexican by putting on a bad mustache, a bad tan, and, in the exact same voice as Judah Ben-Hur, he would deliver lines like, "Susie, one of the longest borders on Earth is right here between your country and mine. Open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place. I suppose that all sounds very corny to you." Eyebrow raised, lips raised not in smile but in oversincerity, declaiming each line as if it were something between a pun and a psalm, every character he played had the same accent, same chiseled chin, and same wooden expression, which as he aged became ever more dignified. Whatever he lacked in the Method, he made up in animal magnetism: he was handsome and strong, and had a voice the sound of mahogany. Heston wasn't a good actor, but he was a great one.
It speaks well of us as a culture that a man's art should outlive his politics. As Little Steven van Zandt has said, "One must always separate the artist from the art. The art is always better." Charlton Heston was one of our greatest stars, and his best movies will last forever. Rest in peace, Charlton, and don't eat any Soylent Green in Heaven.