Among the myriad crimes of Michael Moore was his sandbagging of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. It was a moment everyone could hate: the anti-Heston crowd, for seeing the Moses of the NRA rendered feeble and sympathetic, and the pro-Heston crowd, for seeing the Moses of Hollywood manhood rendered feeble and sympathetic.
Heston, for all his singularity as a movie star, fit a rather predictable mold: the young celebrity liberal, encrusted by wealth, age, and right-wing conservatism (see: Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan). Yet he did, at a certain moment, embody all that was good about Hollywood. He campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and JFK, marched with Martin Luther King, and went to bat professionally for Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah. Later, he stumped for Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, indicating that Alzheimer’s disease had come on somewhat earlier than his 2002 announcement of it.
“Cinematic Atlas: The Triumphs of Charlton Heston,” which runs Friday through September 4 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, is a decidedly apolitical survey of Heston’s oeuvre. “The last thing I wanted to do was something political,” says Josh Strauss, the Film Society’s programmer for the series. “The idea had come up about three weeks before he died [in April of this year], and the concept was a week-long series of Heston films with a cult edge—Omega Man, Soylent Green. When they were released, these movies would play four or five weeks. I’d see them three or four times.
“Strauss agrees that Heston’s late-life politics make him a hot-button subject. “He was like a lot of guys who make a lot of money and become conservatives,” he says. “But there’s something unique about him, and nobody really like him now.”
Harrison Ford comes to mind, he adds. But Heston really stands alone—especially given that he peaked in the ’70s, the same period that Hollywood was being revamped in a way that would make a screen god like Heston virtually obsolete. Not that he ever could be pigeonholed, as the eclecticism of “Cinematic Atlas” proves.
Will Penny is Heston at perhaps his most introspective; Ben-Hur at his most biblically distanced (both are in the series, as is The Greatest Show on Earth, often cited as one of the more turgid movies ever chosen for a Best Picture Oscar). Although Heston is out of his dramatic league in Touch of Evil—Welles, Marlene Dietrich, and even Janet Leigh outclass him—it was largely thanks to his persistence that the picture was made, and that Welles made it.
El Cid, Planet of the Apes, and Earthquake are all here, as is Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which includes the Queens Plaza subway station’s biggest on-screen moment, though it was only a co-starring role for Heston. “They wanted him to do all the Planet of the Apes movies,” Strauss says (there were five in all, plus a TV series). “But he said no. He knew how to choose his material well.”