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Mr. Big

'This is the man - and I mean, The Man - but he's cool.' - from The Omega Man (1971)

Believe it or not - and I'm not sure I do - but it's pretty much exactly a year since I started doing this. The original plan to commemorate this was to review the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, mainly because the execrable remake was the first film to fall under my exacting gaze, but I've decided to retire the 'golden oldie' slot for the foreseeable future (except on special occasions). I honestly didn't intend to write anything this week and thus give us all a break.

Well, more fool me, because here I am writing about Planet of the Apes anyway - sort of. Or, more precisely, trying to write something about Charlton Heston in the light of his announcement that he may have Alzheimer's disease.

This shocked and saddened me more than I'd ever have guessed. Probably because I've had first-hand experience of the disease myself, and know what it does to people. Probably because it's so at odds with the persona Heston's always portrayed on the big screen. And, no doubt, probably because he's an actor I've been supremely ambivalent about for a number of years now.

It's a bit ironic that people are now saying 'Isn't it terrible what's happened to Charlton Heston?' when that's exactly what a lot of liberal-minded movie-goers have been saying for years and years, as Heston's undeniable achievements as an actor have almost become eclipsed by his vocal presidency of the National Rifle Association and enthusiastic endorsement of a particular brand of muscular Republicanism. The novelist Muriel Grey has said that it'd be terrible for her generation to come to think of Heston not as an imposing, unforgettable Moses, but a bit of an arse.

Irony upon irony, really, because it's all the attributes that made Charlton Heston the movie star one of the all-time greats that make Charlton Heston the political spokesman so unpalatable to a lot of people. When I think of Heston the actor, I think of exactly the same kind of rugged individualism, running like a golden thread through all his best performances. All the great stars have a screen persona and Charlton Heston's was of a man who knew what he wanted and wouldn't take any crap from anyone or anything, not army ants, corrupt sheriffs, orangutans, albino zombies, or earthquakes.

A big man, with a big-match temperament - all his great starring roles took place on an epic canvas. Think Heston and you're thinking of him in the chariot race in Ben-Hur. You're thinking of him as Moses, descending the mountain with the Ten Commandments. You're thinking of the extraordinary climax to El Cid, where his
corpse leads the Spanish army into battle. You're thinking (of course) of Heston on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes, his new-found faith in his own race crushed, screaming 'God damn you all to hell!' Great films, great performances. There have been many subtler performers, but few more comfortable operating on a such a scale.

So why should his espousal of what are, let's face it, a perfectly defensible and consistent set of political beliefs sadden me so much? Especially given that they tally so well with the image he projects on the screen? I suppose it's a tribute to Heston's charisma and skill: he plays the hero so well, and part of that job is to make each person in the audience think that, yeah, he's my kind of guy, if we met in real life we'd get on fine. It's inevitably a disappointment to have to accept that this is almost certainly not the case.

Still, to bend the Bard, the fault surely lies not in our film stars but in ourselves. Shouldn't it be possible to appreciate Heston's ability as an actor as something entirely separate from who he is and what he stands for in reality? Well, perhaps: but I can't
decide which is the more mature approach - to say that, hey, not everyone's going to agree, but at least we can all enjoy the movies - or to say that there are some things too important to be brushed under the mat that way, no matter how regrettable that may be.
(A friend and I used to have a similar argument: life's too short to take seriously, she would say. I would reply that it's too short not to take seriously.)

Too often the tributes are made and accolades bestowed when it's far too late for the recipient to appreciate them. This is a tiny attempt to rectify that situation, for while I hope and believe that history will prove Charlton Heston's politics to be misguided, I'm
absolutely certain that he will be remembered and celebrated as an actor for as long as cinema endures - a big man, with a bigger talent.


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