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Planet of the abs

April 7, 2008 |  3:14 pm

Maybe I'm more broken up than most about the death of Charlton Heston, but it seems to me one of Heston's most important achievements has been missing from the appreciations of his half-century-long career: At an age when most men are sliding into paunch and griping about their bad backs, in an era when barrel-chested Victor Mature types had not yet yielded the stage to more sinewy men, Heston brought the hardbody to America.

Heston This is not to say Heston was the only actor of his time who bothered to stay in shape, but the references in our obit to his "lean-hipped" look and nude scene in Planet of the Apes raise an important question: How many 45-year-olds, then or now, would be comfortable showing that much skin on a giant movie screen? More important, how many would look that good? If you check out the other top box office performers of 1968, you'll find even the svelte Steve McQueen and John Cassavetes letting none of it all hang out, and the rest of the list is filled with lumpish leading men like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Say what you will about Heston's unpopular politics or (allegedly) wooden acting; but you could do your laundry on those abs.

Nor is this just a tour of my own homoerotic inner mind. I'd like to stand up for the trilogy of dystopian science fiction of which Planet of the Apes is merely the first part. The New York Times doesn't even mention Soylent Green or The Omega Man in its obit, and our own coverage is pretty dismissive of both. (Planet of the Apes is now canonical enough that highbrows belittle it at their own risk.) I'd argue that both those movies are touched by greatness and live on for, if nothing else, the insights they provide into the culture of their time.

The Omega Man — which opens with Heston tooling around an empty, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the city where the world was meant to end, damn it!) and, in a brilliant touch, watching, over and over again, the only movie still playing, Woodstock — is as full an examination of the relationship between the establishment and the counterculture as any film of its time. It's an olive branch from Heston to the hippies, with the hero repulsed, fascinated by and ultimately in love with the groovy kids he recognizes as the only future for mankind. Who else but Heston could have been at the same time hip enough and square enough to share a hot makeout scene with the late Rosalind Cash, and have that actually mean something? Who else could have rocked that ascot-and-Sgt.-Pepper-jacket look? That Anthony Zerbe's black-robed zombie inquisitor puts a face of intolerance and anti-rationality onto the rhetoric of progress ("Forget the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds") just shows that even when Heston put a hand out to the flower children, he did so recognizing that they shared a common enemy in unreason.

Then there's Soylent Green, which has suffered mightily from partial recognition. Everybody knows the film's hokey last-act revelation, but hardly anybody appreciates the sense of exhaustion, world-weariness and dismay at modernity that endures long after the movie's warning about overpopulation has failed to meet expectations. Heston, who could always play a great ennui-filled cynic, is crucial to making that work. In addition to a chilling opening-credit sequence, the film offers Heston and Edward G. Robinson in an emotional death scene that manages to be bizarre, disturbing, sarcastic and moving all at once.

Finally, the cracks about Heston's limitations as an actor. True, you might not want to have Heston playing Terry Malloy, but there was no better declaimer. If you've never been tempted to buy Charlton Heston Presents The Bible, you just don't care about the English language. And if the words of Mr. Jesus H. Christ don't do it for you, the words of Mr. William Shakespeare might: Heston's cameo as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (finally available on DVD!) shakes the rafters.

So I say: Hands off Heston!

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