In the past three weeks Hollywood lost two movie stars: Richard Widmark, who died at the age of 92, and Charlton Heston, who passed away at 84.
Each man was sui generis. For one thing, each got married and stayed married. Even more unusual for movie actors, each refused to be a product of the Celluloid City hype machine. Widmark wouldn’t do TV interviews: “When I see people destroying their privacy—what they think, what they feel—by beaming it out to millions of viewers, I think it cheapens them as individuals.” He began his career in the role of a snarling psychopath who pushed a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of steps. Kiss of Death (1947) made him a star, but sent producer Louis B. Mayer on a tirade. “Throw the little old lady down the stairs!” Mayer boomed sarcastically. “Step on the mother! Kick her! That is art, they say. Art!”
Well, artful, anyway. Mayer calmed down as Widmark took more socially acceptable roles, rising to play doctors and generals. In fact, the actor came to agree with the old-time moguls. In this new millennium, he found little use for the film colony or for the products that it produced. “The businessmen who run Hollywood today have no self-respect,” he remarked. “What interests them is not movies but the bottom line. Look at Dumb and Dumber, which turns idiocy into something positive, or Forrest Gump, a hymn to stupidity. ‘Intellectual’ has become a dirty word.”
Widmark was a lifelong Democrat. Heston began that way, and all was well. Back in 1963, when Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, Heston walked by his side. Marlon Brando was the only other actor of comparable stature to make the trip. The film colony, most of which couldn’t be bothered to leave Malibu or Beverly Hills to join the protest, cheered him on, especially when he called King “a twentieth-century Moses for his people.”
Who better to speak those words than the physically imposing baritone who had played Moses in C. B. De Mille’s wide-screen version of The Ten Commandments? Heston went on to play a slew of larger-than-life characters: the Spanish leader in El Cid, a Jewish freedom-seeker in Ben-Hur, Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers, General “Chinese” Gordon in Khartoum, and others. Heston had begun his meteoric career in regional theater, and while he devoted himself to the interpretation of big roles, he never let his ego get in the way. In later years, tongue firmly planted in cheek, he appraised his career: “If you need a ceiling painted, a chariot race run, a city besieged, or the Red Sea parted, you think of me.”
Heston remained in good odor when he defended the film industry from the wild slurs of Senator Joe McCarthy and his aides. The actor proceeded to call the Vietnam War a tragic error, pronounced Richard Nixon a “disaster” for the country, and enjoyed the vigorous endorsement of his fellow actors and filmmakers. But then he had the audacity to veer from the received wisdom of Celluloid City. Heston was against abortion and said so publicly. He hated political correctness, defining it as “simply tyranny with good manners.” He believed that the vulgarity of rap and hip-hop lyrics was eroding American culture and excoriated Time Warner for promoting the song “Cop Killer”; it was forced to withdraw the album.
Worse still, in the minds of the moguls and their employees, the superstar dared to defend Americans’ right to own guns. “Here’s my credo,” he explained. “There are no good guns. There are no bad guns. A gun in the hands of a bad man is a bad thing. Any gun in the hands of a good man is no threat to anyone, except bad people.” Insisting that he had remained rock-solid in his beliefs but that the country had shifted to port, he became president of the National Rifle Association. In one speech he apostrophized Bill Clinton: “America didn’t trust you with our health care system. America didn’t trust you with gays in the military. America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.” In 2000, he campaigned for George W. Bush, having already done so for his father.
These activities just about finished Heston in Hollywood. Roles commensurate with his talent were withdrawn or never reached him. Still he refused to bend. “I’ve worked with brilliantly talented homosexuals all my life,” he remarked in the days of neglect. “But when I told an audience that gay rights should extend no farther than your rights or my rights, I was called a homophobe. I served in World War II against the Axis powers. But during a speech, when I drew an analogy between singling out innocent Jews and singling out innocent gun owners, I was called an anti-Semite. I would never raise a closed fist against my country. But when I asked an audience to oppose this cultural persecution, I was compared to Timothy McVeigh.”
Five years ago, Heston learned that he had symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. He met the challenge with typical dignity and humor. “For an actor,” he said in a public address, “there is no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can’t part with you, which is why I won’t exclude you from this stage in my life. If you see a little less spring to my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you’ll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway.”
Even then the Hollywood Left would not stop its persecution. George Clooney was particularly vicious, making jokes about the older actor’s condition. When a reporter from Newsday questioned his insensitivity, Clooney replied, “I don’t care. Charlton Heston is the head of the National Rifle Association. He deserves whatever anyone says about him.” (Recalling George’s aunt, singer Rosemary Clooney, Heston said to a friend, “Funny how class can skip a generation, isn’t it?”) Michael Moore sank to a new low, if such a thing was possible, in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, trying to grill an obviously ailing Heston about gun ownership. With a weary, withering look, Heston silently turns away.
And yet with all these negatives, Heston remained as positive as his late colleague Richard Widmark. Both men went out smiling. “A lot of actors said they hated the studio system,” recalled Widmark. “But I loved it. It was like a college; it was a great place to learn.” And for Charlton Heston, despite the cheap catcalls and derision from lesser souls, “It was a great ride. I loved every minute of it.” So did we.