Charlton Heston is Turner Classic Movies' “Summer Under the Stars” star on Monday, August 5, 2013. TCM will be presenting one Heston movie premiere: Guy Green's Hawaiian-set family drama Diamond Head (1963), in which Heston plays a pineapple grower, U.S. Senate candidate, and total control freak at odds with his strong-willed younger sister, the lovely Yvette Mimieux. Also in the Diamond Head cast: France Nuyen, Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner George Chakiris (West Side Story), The Time Tunnel's James Darren, and veteran Aline MacMahon (Gold Diggers of 1933, Five Star Final) in one of her last movie roles. And last but not least, silent film star Billie Dove reportedly has a bit role in the film. (Image: Charlton Heston ca. 1955.) (Charlton Heston movies: TCM schedule.)
Now, with the exception of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, in which Charlton Heston actually bothered – or was coerced into – creating a flesh-and-blood character (as a dark-skinned Mexican narcotics officer, no less), the on-screen Heston tended to be as interesting as a slab of rock. I, for one, can't help noticing his presence; yet, my eyes invariably focus on who or what is sharing the screen with him. In King Vidor's melodrama Ruby Gentry (1952), Jennifer Jones nearly succeeds in rendering the much bulkier Heston downright invisible; in Richard Fleischer's cult classic Soylent Green (1973), Edward G. Robinson steals the show in his final film appearance; in Nicholas Ray's ponderous, artificial political drama 55 Days in Peking (1962), Heston is dwarfed by the sets and costumes.
Charlton Heston: Moses minus the staff, tablets, fake beard = Ben-Hur
As far as I'm concerned, despite strong competition from the likes of Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur), Warner Baxter (In Old Arizona), George Arliss (Disraeli), and Russell Crowe (Gladiator), among others, Charlton Heston's Academy Award-winning performance for William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) remains one of the most absurd in Academy Award history. After all, Heston's Ben-Hur is Moses minus the staff, the tablets, and the fake beard, or The Greatest Show on Earth's showman minus the circus, or The Agony and the Ecstasy's Michelangelo minus the Sistine Chapel, or Earthquake's construction engineer minus the collapsing buildings.
In other words, Ben-Hur is Charlton Heston going through the motions as Charlton Heston. And true enough, he does move – atop a chariot, that is – but a) B. Reeves Eason's chariot race in the 1925 Ben-Hur is more exciting and more intricately constructed b) silent film histrionics or no, the original Ben-Hur, Ramon Novarro, at least succeeded in creating a recognizable human being. (Novarro will have his “Summer Under the Stars” day on Thursday, August 8. You can check out his version of Ben-Hur then.)
I should add that Charlton Heston's 1959 Best Actor Oscar competition consisted of the following: James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top, and Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man. And that Heston's Ben-Hur nomination (and eventual win) turned out to be his only one.
Also worth noting is that William Wyler's epic remains one of the biggest box office hits ever (adjusted for inflation) and remained the record-holding Academy Award winner until James Cameron's Titanic (1997) and later Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) also took home 11 Oscar statuettes.
Note: If the IMDb is to be believed, Charlton Heston's Ben-Hur features the 1925 film's leading lady May McAvoy in a crowd scene. If so, spotting her will likely be as easy (not) as spotting Myrna Loy in the 1925 version, or Sophia Loren in Quo Vadis. Good luck!
And finally, The Big Question since time immemorial (or at least since Gore Vidal began wagging his sharp tongue): Was Judah Ben-Hur Gay?
[“From Sir Thomas More to Ben-Hur (But Not Moses): Charlton Heston” continues on the next page. See link below.]