Charlton Heston’s Last Act

Those damn, dirty apes finally took their stinking paws off him.

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As the story goes, Cecil B. DeMille chose Charlton Heston to play Moses in his epic The Ten Commandments because Heston looked a hell of a lot like the Moses of Michelangelo’s famous statue. Apocryphal or not, I believe it. It had to have been an awesome experience being approached by a young Charlton Heston. It had to have been like running into a statue — rock hewn, solid, but supple all the same. He does look like that statue.

As a child I was transfixed by the presence of him, by the way he towers over things in that movie. I remember watching it with my sister more than once. She was barely more than a toddler, even less able than I was to expend much attention on a feature film. But Mr. Heston nailed her to a spot on the floor. He had something, some power to do that to us.

I recognize that the film is dangerously close to being kitsch. One need only glance at a picture of Edward G. Robinson as the Isrealite apostate Dathan to get a sense of the absurdity of DeMille’s spectacle. Edward G. Robinson was born to wear a three-piece suit, not dance around in leather jerkin with an ashtray on his head. But Heston saved it, somehow, just with the presence he manages to get into the camera and onto the screen.

That’s the irony of the movie, I suppose. Cecil B. DeMille was famous for, among other things, throwing actors around like so many buzzing flies filling up the space of his filmic tableaux. He didn’t count actors by talent so much as by sheer numerical quantity. If a good movie takes 50 actors, he seems to have surmised, a really great one will take 5,000.

In The Ten Commandments DeMille wanted to tell “the greatest story ever told.” He tossed the actors out in handfuls and piled on the sets as if he himself could speak the word to material things, thus making them be. But the movie is dated. The techniques, from the acting to the camera work, are trapped in a pathetic no man’s land between the era of early filmmaking from which DeMille was spawned and the technologies and sensibilities of another generation. The only one who could hold it together was one of the cogs in the machine, a granite-faced man who looked like a statue become flesh. Heston is what is great about The Ten Commandments, not Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille’s next move, right after the movie was finished, was to die.

Now Charlton Heston is just as dead as DeMille. The sad part about it is that, like DeMille, he lingered too long past his time. He was a guest on Saturday Night Live in 1993. I remember watching the episode in a sustained cringe. Some of the sketches may even have been funny. But it was clear that he didn’t really know why they were funny. He wasn’t understanding the world around him anymore. He had the lost look of a grandparent confronted with something a little too new, a little too far past the framework of reference. It is analogous to the difference between his youthful and bold defense of the Civil Rights Movement in the early ’60s and his pitiful trumpeting of stale NRA rhetoric in old age.

That is a troubling thought. One benefit of getting old, we like to imagine, is the benefit of gaining wisdom. Experience is supposed to confer a kind of wizened capacity for judgment. You gain a sense not just for how things seem to work in the moment, but also for how they really work, how they’ve always worked. But that isn’t how it often goes. Cecil B. DeMille became a clown. Charlton Heston became a damn fool.

Life for them, real life, did not span the entirety of their lived existence. It spanned a few short decades when they were both in the world and of the world. That is what made them big. You could call it the bigness of immanence. And yet that vital immanence drifts away as capriciously as it drifts in. Charlton Heston was living in this world during the last few decades of his life, but not really. In fact, he had been shunted off to its periphery, a baffled old man. Our only solace is that it makes his moment of immanence all the more luminous. Not many men could trade their flesh against the stone of Michelangelo’s statue. At least we have to give the old man that. • 8 April 2008