Monday, April 7, 2008

"The only place where a policeman's job is easy is in a police state."

As you can see above, Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine cut the late Charlton Heston down to size. And that was a good thing for both of them. As infamous as the scene came to be, there's very little posturing. It's just an imperfect but bracing exchange of ideas, with some facts and emotions that won't fit in the box. Heston here is neither the bold conservative hero nor a gun lobby shill. He's a man with some interesting ideas and no answers. But his comments on Americans having blood on our hands indicates that while he's starred in Hollywood Westerns, he doesn't believe all the myths of the Western frontier.

Heston, of course, died Saturday. He is much memorialized today. Both Ty Burr's flawed yet sincere elegy in The Boston Globe and Self-Styled Siren's penetrating blog-essay are worth reading. I'd just like to clear up a couple of points.

First of all, it's easy to make too much of his playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil. For most of its history, Latin actors in Hollywood have hidden their roots, and some Anglo or otherwise Northern actors have taken lead parts written as Latin. Cesar Romero and John Gavin are two cases in point. On the other side, so is Romero's sometime lover Tyrone Power, who played the California Spanish adventurer Zorro. And only a few years before TOE that Huguenot-Irish Marlon Brando got an Oscar nomination* for playing Emiliano Zapata.

No, Heston's accomplishment was not in playing an ethnicity, and thankfully he does not straitch out hees vowels, senyor. Rather, he captures a type, a strong moral absolutist who believes in right behavior, clear distinctions, and no shortcuts. Orson Welles, by contrast, is a moral relativist like most of us are. His tragedy is that he has power to back it up, and you know what they say about power.

Heston's seriousness was also not all it seemed. Onscreen, he did have the presence of a preacher and a prophet. And yes, he leant this quality to projects he believed in. But it was both an effect and an affect, and he was aware of this. For Heaven's sake, the man starred in an SNL skit called "The President Has Mustard on his Chin."

His history with the "Planet of the Apes" franchise also shows a skilled tongue in cheek. The 1968 original had a goofed-up premise, but was played absolutely straight, and for the better. Tim Burton's remake played it mostly straight, but not as well. Heston made a memorable cameo, however, as an angry and dying chimp patriarch, one traumatized by the humans' firearms (!). He and Paul Giamatti as the orang slave trader provide signs that the film would have worked better as a fantastique comedy throughout.

Actors in general are not as fascinating as the ink and photons spilled on them would indicate. But some notably make the movies and the world more fun. Charlton Heston succeeded here.

*Much to my embarassment and Elia Kazan's chagrin, Brando didn't actually win. Thanks to Michael in comments for fact-checking.


Michael said...

Marlon Brando didn't win for Viva Zapata, and it wasn't even his first nomination. But Irish-Mexican Anthony Quinn did win his first Oscar for that film.

Ben said...

You're quite correct, and I'm about to make a couple of changes.