I'm of two minds about Charlton Heston, whose passing Saturday has brought about many a respectful tribute from some of the best film writers out there, bloggers and press folk both. The first is that here was as one of the first big movie stars of my life, a guy who I grew up watching in many big films of the era: as Taylor in PLANET OF THE APES, Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE OMEGA MAN, EARTHQUAKE and that 70s TV staple, AIRPORT '75, among many others. Heston was a blockbuster actor, one whose very presence denoted a certain bigness and spectacle to the films he was in, and I feel it has to be argued that's how he played it more often than not. The joke that Charlton Heston was someone who was always over the top, whose dialog was to be shouted from the mountaintops for all to hear, isn't an unwarranted one because, if you look, it was quite often there. Heston himself was in on the joke, parodying it on several occasions - on Saturday Night Live and in a series of Bud Light radio ads as two examples - occasionally using it to his advantage, like in his effective cameo as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET back in '96. He became one of those actors who were becoming remembered as much for the impressionist's version of them than for whatever the work itself was (Phil Hartman's was always my fave). There's larger than life and there's over the top and Heston, it has to be said, was both.
But there is something to be said for this. It's always a matter of the material, so Heston could either play it low or play it loud, and usually loud wasn't that wrong a choice. The bombastic approach was spot-on for the likes of PLANET OF THE APES (I honestly can't imagine anyone else tackling that final scene like he did) and he made for a terrific Long John Silver in a TV adaptation of TREASURE ISLAND in 1990. His films weren't always that subtle, so he proved to be the right guy for the likes of THE OMEGA MAN and SOYLENT GREEN, and its more than likely that he's the reason those films have endured over the years. But if he needed to downplay it, bring it down a couple of notches, he could and that's usually when he was at his most effective. He may seem out of place as a Mexican in TOUCH OF EVIL, but you get over it very easily, and he's a solid part of this classic film's success. He's more than just the "good guy", he's the moral compass of the story, never too stoic or self-righteous, and he plays extremely well off of Wells (in one of his best performances). There was also the likes of WILL PENNY (Heston's own personal favorite), Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's MUSKETEERS films, Peckinpah's flawed-but-interesting MAJOR DUNDEE and Andrew McLaglen's THE LAST HARD MEN (opposite James Coburn), all of which showed him off to excellent advantage if you're looking to convince folks that Heston was more than just the guy who always shouted his dialog.
Unfortunately, that's how most people will know and remember Heston the actor, even if he was a legendary performer who worked with the likes of Wells, Cecil B. DeMille, Anthony Mann, Richard Lester, Sam Peckinpah, William Wyler, Nicholas Ray, George Stevens, and even Oliver Stone. It's a hell of a legacy, more than a little tainted, but when it's rich it's very rich indeed.