Charlton Heston would have turned 100 this month. He left this world at the age of 84, with his body and mind reportedly ravaged by a particularly cruel manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease. It is very difficult to imagine a person who exuded so much vitality, strength, personality and magnetism, who added epic overtones to many of the historical characters that he played, ending up so sick and weak.
The last time I saw him on a screen he was already very unwell, and he was deceived by the clever, opportunistic and devious Michael Moore, who interviewed him in the documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002) with the sole intention of labeling him a fascist in perpetuity, since Heston was at that time president of the very dangerous and harmful National Rifle Association. It’s sad that this should have happened to a liberal who participated in the March on Washington for civil rights. Someone who also confronted the producers of Touch of Evil and Major Dundee when they tried to kick Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah off the set and replace them with more docile directors. Heston wielded his own star status to prevent it, putting himself on the line for them, and thanks to his gesture, we will forever enjoy those two masterpieces of the film noir and Western varieties.
When you think about the great actors from the golden days of American film — the irreplaceable classics, the people who really filled the screen, with a wide acting range, who were attractive and communicative, who were endowed with a presence and an aura that made the audience fill the movie theaters just for the pleasure of seeing them act, it is clear that these gentlemen’s last names were Grant, Cooper, Tracy, Stewart, Fonda, Wayne, Douglas, Bogart, Peck, Mitchum, Brando, Newman. It is difficult for memory to integrate Heston into that irreplaceable roll of honor. Yet if you review his filmography, you will discover that he was a natural born achiever, always convincing in a variety of roles, a guy who exuded authenticity and magnetism, self-possessed, as though in possession of something epic.
He was the monarch and his symbol, getting under the skin of historical figures, of legends whose stories were told in a better or worse way. We identify him with Judah Ben-Hur, with Moses, with Cardinal Richelieu, with El Cid, with John the Baptist, with Michelangelo Buonarroti, with General Charles Gordon, with Mark Antony, with King Henry VIII. He played them well. He also played credible characters in Westerns. He was very good in The Big Country, Will Penny and, above all, as the epic, arrogant and self-destructive Amos Dundee, that soldier who obsessively pursued the Indian Sierra Charriba, and who knew that for him the war would never end because he carried it inside his soul.
He also triumphed at unforgettable levels in the complicated universe of science fiction. No spectator will ever forget the desolation of that astronaut when he realizes, upon seeing the demolished Statue of Liberty, that this strange planet inhabited by apes had been our Earth for millennia, at the end of the memorable Planet of the Apes. Nor will audiences forget the anguished police officer who discovers in Soylent Green that the population survives thanks to the flesh of dead people, and eternal exploitation.
We identify Heston with spectacular cinema, with true or false heroes tailored to a Hollywood that allowed itself all kinds of licenses with the historical truth, more concerned with the box office than with art. But the formula worked like a charm for a long time, and Heston guaranteed the fervor of the public. This actor was also versatile. He could be mysterious and complex, and the memory of it is pleasant to me. I don’t want to imagine him caught up in the current trend of vacuous, repetitive superhero movies. He possessed something epic, yet at the same time seemed real.
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