Monday, April 7, 2008

From his cold dead hands: The passing of Charlton Heston

Posted By on Mon, Apr 7, 2008 at 9:31 AM

When I watched Bowling For Columbine, I was ready to write Charlton Heston off as a foolish old man. It wasn't until he died that I saw he was more than Moses and the NRA.

He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But the theatre critic from the Toronto Star says it best:

"For that whole generation, Heston exists solely as a figure of contempt: the trigger-happy spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, proudly proclaiming that his gun would have to be pried "from my cold, dead hands" before he would let it go.

The real Charlton Heston was a complicated man who deserved to provoke such differing responses. As American poet Walt Whitman once wrote "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

And no one ever accused Heston of living life in lower case. He embodied "go big or go home" long before it ever became a catchphrase, even though what started out as his strength would become his eventual undoing.

He was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Ill. on Oct. 4, 1923, but after his parents divorced and his mother remarried, he reinvented himself as Charlton Heston, combining his mother's maiden name and his stepfather's last name.

He studied drama at Northwestern University, served in World War II and married his classmate Lydia Clarke in 1944. They had two children and remained married until his death.

By 1947, Heston made his Broadway debut opposite Katherine Cornell in a supporting role in Antony and Cleopatra, but his rugged good looks and commanding height (6'2") soon led him to Hollywood.

A splashy performance in Cecil B. DeMille's Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth was the only bright spot in Heston's early film career and he was about to return to the theatre when DeMille threw him a lifeline.

He played Moses in DeMille's giant 1956 epic The Ten Commandments and suddenly seemed to have found his true identity as the creator of larger-than-life roles from another time and place.

When he stepped behind the chariot in 1959's Ben-Hur, he solidified that reputation and won an Oscar for his performance.

During this period, Heston also distinguished himself for his efforts on behalf of the civil rights movement, taking a prominent place in protest marches and making speeches that were as passionately liberal as his later ones would prove to be chillingly reactionary.

He rode the spectacle craze as long as it lasted, appearing in films like El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Khartoum.

But as the '60s waned, Heston found his style of movies growing unpopular and his politics veering to the right.

By the time he became the president of the NRA in 1998, he was almost a parody of his earlier self. The tough, unyielding qualities that had seemed so attractive when paired with his youthful humanism now appeared almost diabolic when coupled with the rantings of an angry old man.

He was treated for alcoholism in 2000 and announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's in 2002. He was in the early stages of the disease when Michael Moore pursued him in Bowling for Columbine, trying to get Heston to accept responsibility for the shooting death of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland because of his pro-gun rhetoric.

It's difficult to reconcile the battered figure who retreats from Moore's onslaught with the giant who once brought the word of God down from Mount Sinai, but for many people the hero never existed and only the villain remains.

When Shakespeare observed that "one man in his time plays many parts," he failed to add that it's often the last part he plays that posterity chooses to remember him by."

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