Archive for Charlton Heston

Don’t tell Chuck (again)

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2021 by dcairns

(Or, Creative Differences Two)

Having enjoyed LUST FOR LIFE no end, I popped THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY on, because that’s the other film based on one of Irving Stone’s popular art biographies. MGM had optioned LFL and sat on it for ten years, concluding “There’s no story there.” Then Minnelli came along and disagreed, and we got the film. TAATE definitely has a clearer kind of story, it’s based around a single goal (the Cistine Chapel ceiling) and it has a central conflict (Michelangelo vs. Pope Julius II). But it differs from most mainstream movies in that the conflict results in creation, not destruction.

This movie has not much of a reputation. Carol Reed was considered past his best in 1965, and so was the historical epic. It’s a white elephant picture par excellence. But I rather liked it. Shot by Leon M. Shamroy, designed by John DeCuir, two men with spectacular lists of credits, it’s a visual feast, and mostly the splendor avoids vulgarity.

Oh, except when Michelangelo gets his inspiration from a matte painting, that’s awful.

Chuck Heston in his memoir talks about the difficulty of playing Michelangelo is that the man didn’t seem to be interested in anything but his work. Really, Chuck? Diane Cilento has been pasted into this picture as a beard to heterosexualise the hero. Since Heston is always stiff in the wrong way around women, not much passion is suggested, but Chuckles is devoid of any trace of ambiguity so the effort could probably have been spared. Still, screenwriter Philip Dunne has included an archly amusing scene where the Pope has soldiers hunting for his painter, who’s gone on the lam. They;re seen searching a brothel, where a half-naked woman in bed is in hysterics: “You’re looking for Michelangelo in THIS HOUSE?”

So we have the amusing situation of Heston playing, for the second time (after BEN-HUR) a character whose sexuality he’s not allowed to know about. He isn’t terrible in the part — it’s not like his demented Moses — but had Rex Harrison a nimbler, more vulnerable and expressive co-star, it could have been pretty great. The agony doesn’t really come across. Michelangelo gets sick, but I missed much sense of backbreaking toil, and of course we never see anything really get painted, just the odd stroke.

The Reed film this most resembles is probably TRAPEZE, if you think about it.

But — Reed found to his surprise that the Vatican was willing to let them film in the real Cistine. But he turned them down. And he was right. DeCuir’s team built an identical replica at Cinecitta, ceilinged it with photographs of the real thing, with the colours brightened to make it look like new. And when Pope Julius leads his reluctant artist into the chapel for the first time, Reed can tilt up to reveal — a BLANK Cistine Chapel ceiling. Having a duplicate to shoot in obviously also freed the filmmakers from all kinds of restraints. But that’s an expensive solution!

Like everyone else who crossed Sey Rexy’s path, Heston found him tricky, though he has the appealing habit of trying to like everyone. He notes that Harrison objected strongly to carrying a papal pointer in a scene which was supposed to end with him breaking the pointer over Michelangelo’s back, an incident which really happened, was the climax of the scene, and was even referred to in dialogue later.

The script is by Philip Dunne, writer of Fox movies for thirty-plus years, some of which (THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) are great. This one’s literate, and doesn’t suffer too much from Epic Dialogue Syndrome.

Rex Harrison’s memoir is hilarious on this one. Harrison’s huge ego demands that he be the star in a film about Michelangelo even though he’s not Michelangelo. “I don’t think Carol was himself. I think Charlton Heston was absolutely himself, and by the end I didn’t know who I was. Pope I knew I was, though the real star was Michelangelo, and Heston very politely and very nicely made me feel that it was extremely kind of me to be supporting him. Carol did little to disabuse him of this notion, so I did everything I could to make myself believe that the picture was about Pope Julius rather than about Michelangelo. In this I was not too successful.”

They wanted Olivier, Rexy.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY stars Moses; Professor Henry Higgins; Molly Seagrim; 13th Earl of Gurney; Prof. Alberto Levin; Prof. Henry Wassermann; Largo; Pat Garrett; Julia Martineau; Manuel ‘Cuchillo’ Sanchez; and Chief Inspector Tim Oxford.

Moses strikes poses

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2021 by dcairns

An amusing irony: Howard Hawks said he learned what NOT to do by looking at DeMille’s films, then when he made his own ancient world epic, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, he ran into the famous “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks” problem, which DeMille had, you could say, solved: in DeMille films, pharaohs talk like characters in Cecil B. DeMille films.

Never more so that in the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS where Yul Brunner is at his Yul Brynneriest throughout. (Yet Cedric Hardwicke comes within shouting distance of humanity at times.) But the one, true biscuit is taken by Chuckles Heston, who starts out in his version of naturalism — declamatory, gravelly, planting his feet wide apart, flexing, heaving the words up from his solar plexus — but becomes something wholly other once Moses gets religion…

In prophet mode, Heston produces a form of “acting” I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. Maybe it’s what D.W. Griffith would have sounded like if his 1908 semaphore could be translated into spoken form. It has something in common with the ghosts in Japanese movies — think RASHOMON. It has nothing in common with human speech.

The best example is when Rameses finally frees the Israelites: we have to blame the script for some of it, though DeMille in his intro claims that history is really to blame. Moses starts speechifying — then walks out of the scene, still declaiming. You can hear his voice diminishing in the distance for close to a minute. Who does that? Rod Steiger does it in THE BIG KNIFE, playing a lunatic film producer of the L.B. Mayer variety. Charles Haid does it in ALTERED STATES, to hilarious effect. In the first case, a character point is being made, in the second, Ken Russell was forced to include a lot of talk he didn’t particularly care for, so he tried to dispose of it in novel ways. No such excuse exists here. Moses is just being written as a nutjob, unintentionally.

If you’re inclined to laugh at infant mortality, this film has much to offer, but this scene is the finest example, because the army of scribes has taken care to insert between Heston’s wooden lips pointed references to the liberation of the CHILDREN of Israel (DeMille has made the whole story an anti-commie tract), timed to coincide/clash with Anne Baxter descending a grand staircase with her divinely slain son in her arms. Which tends to make Moses seem every bit as crass as Heston giving one of his NRA speeches in the wake of a school shooting.

This moment, jaw-dropping though it is, is just a preliminary to Moses’ Big Hair acting in the film’s third act. Chuckles has looked in the mirror and asked himself, what would a guy who looks like THIS talk like? Big mistake. I can’t describe what he does. It involves BOOMING. The oratorical style might be defensible when Moses is speaking to the masses, as he so often is in this section. But he keeps it up for casual conversation. Booming banter. Supremely confident terrible acting.

For a few minutes, I thought I was going to find the film’s weird non-naturalism fascinating, the stiffness of its blocking and delivery hypnotic and kind of impressive. But it’s not quite rigid ENOUGH. The tableau style of GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is more my bag — genuinely experimental.

When Scorsese talks about the power of DeMille’s images, he seems to mainly be talking about the effects shots, and I think maybe we should credit the storyboard artists and John P. Fulton and his team, though I guess DeMille is responsible for approving everything. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the film’s undeniably impressive images have any good acting in them. (Only Edward G. Robinson is good in this, though I wish he’d played it at a Warner pre-code pace. As the only Jewish actor, naturally he plays the Bad Jew. Oh, and Yvonne DeCarlo, gamely battling her dialogue like Jason struggling with the hydra: whenever one terrible line is defeated, two more rise to take its place.)

I can understand Scorsese’s residual affection for a film he was impressed by as a kid. But I don’t think it’s objectively better than the Marvel and DC films he rightly dismisses.

Touchingly, Moses waves goodbye to us/his people at the end of the film, which was DeMille’s last as director. He clearly wanted to get the most out of it, which is why he narrates huge swathes, patiently describing what we can already see, sometimes sneakily suggesting debauchery and wickedness he’s not allowed to show us, much though he would love to.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS stars Major Dundee; King Mongkut of Siam; Lucy Morgan; Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Lily Munster; Shila – Cleopatra’s Daughter; Hajji Baba; Arthur Winslow; Julia Ross; Ellie Hilliard; Mrs. Danvers; Prince Prospero; Hatfield; Athos; The Black-Bearded One; Actor on DeMille’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ Set; Jesus – the Christ; John Miljan – Actor in Bedroom Scene; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Scar / Cicatriz; Hatfield; Donald Pecos – aka The Pecos Kid; Dr. Franz Edlemann; Samson Posey; Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis; Judas; Norman Frink; Alvin Straight; Mary Todd Lincoln; Chubby Bannister; Lucifer Jr; Alfalfa; Napoleon Solo; and Herb Alpert as himself.

Here comes the cavalry

Posted in FILM with tags , , on March 28, 2021 by dcairns

Stephen C. Horne and I collaborated on a video essay for Neil Snowden’s production of Arrow’s release of MAJOR DUNDEE. A fun job! Farran Nehme has contributed a booklet essay which I can’t wait to read, and Glenn Erickson is on commentary duty.

Went into it absolutely sure I was going to tell Charlton Heston’s story of being provoked to the point where he murderously charged Peckinpah on horseback, but then figured it was going to be covered everywhere else. So I found other things. The hardest part was adjusting back to the twenty-minute form after making a feature-length piece for WEIRD WISCONSIN: THE BILL REBANE COLLECTION. But it’s impossible not to have some fun in the mad world of Peckinpah: vicarious insanity.