Charlton Heston passed away this past Saturday, at the age of 83. Certainly, Heston deserved the scorn he earned for his standing as a right-wing zealot — here was the guy who became president of the NRA and who campaigned for both Bushes — but it's only fair to note that earlier in his life (when he was still a Democrat), he was a decent human being, twice marching for civil rights and opposed to McCarthy's witch hunts of the 1950s. As an actor, I usually found him somewhat stiff, but damn if I didn't enjoy watching him in many of his films. His rugged machismo and leadership aura made him a natural as a movie star, and he turned in several noteworthy performances throughout his long career. Here are some favorites:
1. Planet of the Apes (1968). Heston's best work, carrying the (Statue of Liberty) torch for humankind in the midst of those damn, dirty apes.
2. Ben-Hur (1959). Heston won the Oscar for his impassioned turn, even though he knew nothing about the homosexual subtext between Ben-Hur and Messala (see The Celluloid Closet).
3. The Big Country (1958). Heston offers sterling support to lead Gregory Peck in this excellent Western featuring a prominent Hollywood liberal and a prominent Hollywood conservative (despite their political differences, the two always held great respect for each other).
4. Hamlet (1996). As the Player King, Heston holds his own against the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi and far outshines the other Yanks in the cast (Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon).
5. The Naked Jungle (1954). Heston against rampaging killer ants — nuff said.
And among his worst films: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); The Omega Man (1971); Airport 1975 (1974); Two-Minute Warning (1976).