05 April 2008

The Cid is Dead! Long live the Cid!

Oh no, he’s finally gone and done it! Damn him all to hell!

This constant stream of obituaries is turning downright depressing. Now Charlton Heston is dead at age 84. This isn’t a tremendous surprise, since he had revealed back 2002 that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Nonetheless, I got a jolt when I read the news today; only last month I had watched him in the movie El Cid (directed by the awesome Anthony Mann) and realized that the much-parodied NRA president and SNL comedy-staple could actually be a great actor. He was a stylized and larger-than-life performer, and in these days of naturalistic acting style he can seem pretty hammy. Having classic lines from Planet of the Apes (“It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!”) and Soylent Green (“Soylent Green is made from…” well, you know what) repeated endlessly as punchlines or as clips on TV shows tended to immortalize Chuck Heston as the Grand Ham of Hollywood. But he brought a tremendous presence and authority to his roles, especially in the epics where his performance fit the scope of the story, like Ben-Hur, El Cid, and The Ten Commandmants. He also has a special place in the world of science fiction for Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Planet of the Apes. And for the film noir lover, there’s always Touch of Evil—and he was instrumental in getting Orson Welles on as director. One of Heston’s best performances is unfortunately mostly forgotten: the title character in Tom Gries’s gritty Western about the workaday world of the cowboy, Will Penny.

Looking over the scope of his career now that he’s gone, however, I’m going to lay my money down on El Cid as the best work he ever did. If you haven’t seen it before, the new DVD set is absolutely essential viewing. Especially now the Cid has finally ridden off into legend.

(To all those who think deaths happen in threes, the recent progression just shows that celebrity deaths happen constantly, and then we just group them into threes. I’m guessing that most people won’t count Jules Dassin as a “celebrity,” but he sure was to me. Same with Gary Gygax and Arthur C. Clarke, just as much as Chuck Heston and Heath Ledger. Most “death in triplicate” proponents cherry-pick whose death counts and whose doesn’t until they arrive at the magic number three.)