Sunday, April 6, 2008

Moses is dead and I'm not feeling well either

I went to bed late last night after working at a very nice party, providing music for the guests who were celebrating two major events at one time. The first was a 60th birthday party and the second was an official housewarming for his sister-in-law, who was hosting the event. After well over two years, she was finally free of architects and contractors whose job it was to restore and repair her house following the damage from the Hurricane Katrina related flooding. The party took place no more than eight blocks away as the crow flies from my home, so I know the house received at least four to five feet of flooding. When I checked my e-mail, I found a notice that noted actor Charlton Heston, 84, the star of "The Ten Commandments," "Ben Hur," "The Agony and the Ecstasy," "El Cid," "The Greatest Show on Earth," "The Planet of the Apes," and "Touch of Evil" (to name just a few) had succumbed, probably due to the effects of Alzheimer's disease with which he had acknowledged having consistent symptoms in 2002. For me his greatest role was that of Moses, the central figure of Cecil B. DeMille's retelling of "The Ten Commandments" in 1956. I remember seeing that film in the theatres as a child with my grandmother dragging me by the hand. I recall the pivotal scene where Heston's Moses sees the burning bush and hears the words of God for the first time. To a young, impressionable kid, especially one who was coming to grips with his Jewish heritage, this was a very awe-inspiring film. To me Heston was the definitive portrayal of Moses and I used his performance to consider what the real prophet would have been like. Later, in Hebrew school, I learned that Moses used his brother Aaron to communicate to the pharaoh because he was slow of speech. I found that concept implausible when I thought about the movie, because Heston was a speechwriter's dream, a stoic figure with a booming baritone to match. The other major movie role I treasured growing up was Heston's Judah Ben Hur in William Wyler's epic "Ben Hur." Although this was a Christian tale, there was Heston playing the role of another Jew. With his hawk-like, chiseled features, I should have known that he wasn't Jewish, but the illusion was convincing because, after all, wasn't he Moses? The chariot scene in the Academy Award winning film still ranks as one of my favorites and it probably helped secure Heston his only Oscar. Here in the Crescent City, some will recall Heston portrayed Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, in the Hollywood send up "The Buccaneer" in which Yul Brynner played privateer Jean Lafitte. But most will recall Heston's role in "Number One" in which he played the improbable role of a great quarterback (Billy Kilmer did most of the throwing in cutaways), who had brought his New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl. Whatever role he played, Heston was usually over the top. Consider his "El Cid" opposite Sophia Loren or his circus master in "The Greatest Show on Earth," de Mille's only Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Heston chose to ignore the historical record when he took on the role of Michelangelo, a gifted artist acknowledged by Vatican scholars as having been homosexual. But it didn't really matter. Heston was larger than life and like John Wayne, he cast such an enormous figure that he made the pictures ever so much stronger by his appearance in them. Heston was a six-time president of the Screen Actors Guild and presided over the American Film Institute. He loved community theatre and helped found the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Wolfe's hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, not far from where I attended summer camp for seven years. Many will remember his TV role on "Dynasty" and "The Colbys," but Heston was a movie star. The small screen never seemed to capture his true essence. There were the forgettable pictures too like "Soylent Green" and those disaster flicks like "Airport 1975" and "Earthquake," but fans were forgiving of Heston, even when he became highly politicized late in life. As a president of the National Rifle Association, he devoutly defended the right of Americans to bear arms, even if he took heat for it from the liberal wing. He and Ed Asner, TV's Lou Grant, got into a series of public imbroglios over restricting gun ownership and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore ambushed Heston in his own Beverly Hills home in "Bowling for Columbine." It was probably not a well-advised move for Heston to have an audience with Moore, who used the opportunity to personally impugn Heston's integrity and sensitivity in holding pro-NRA rallies in Flint, Michigan and in Columbine following gun tragedies there. It was a low point for Moore, but Heston showed his mettle by leaving the interview after six minutes of haranguing by the porcine interviewer. Heston leaves behind his wife of 64 years, Lydia, adopted daughter Holly Heston Rochell and director-producer son Fraser, who made his screen debut as the infant Moses in "The Ten Commandments." It is a shame, but Heston's famous chant at NRA conventions with rifle raised above his head ("From my cold dead hands!") can now be played in earnest. I much prefer "Let it be written. Let it be done!" Don't you?

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