A new biography attempts to understand the many sides of one of the 20th century’s most famous actors.
Charlton Heston (1923-2008) was a man of contradictions. The 1960s activist who fought to convince studios to make more films in the United States is the same actor whose most profitable pictures, including The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and El Cid, were shot overseas. Eliot (American Titan: Searching for John Wayne, 2014, etc.), biographer of such Hollywood conservatives as Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, and Cary Grant, shows how Heston, a one-time Democrat who marched in the earliest civil rights protests and fought to preserve public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, became a Nixon supporter who detested the “Woodstock-flavored counterculture that wanted to blame the soldiers” for the Vietnam War and, most notoriously, became the president of the National Rifle Association. Eliot writes insightfully about Heston’s acting. “Heston’s interpretations rarely went beneath the surface” of his characters, a style that nonetheless worked well in costume dramas such as The Greatest Show on Earth and later sci-fi films such as Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green. The prose is workmanlike throughout, however, and the book is hagiographic: Eliot criticizes the lesser films—Julius Caesar, The Hawaiians, The Call of the Wild—but not Heston, except to acknowledge that he “remained weakest in the romance department in his films” and that his late-life politics cost him acting jobs. Still, readers will enjoy the many inside-Hollywood anecdotes, such as Heston chatting with the Ten Commandments crew about “what he imagined Moses’s sex life might have been like” and the director, Cecil B. DeMille, finding the editing of the film “a surgical chore” when he discovered that some of the extras in the orgy scene were “behaving a little too much like true Method actors, blurring the line between acting and real life.”
An entertaining picture of a complicated cinema icon, albeit viewed through rose-colored glasses.