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Neither Charlton Heston’s “cold, dead hands” nor his films get their due in a new biography

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Image: Libby McGuire
Image: Libby McGuire
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Charlton Heston: Hollywood's Last Icon

Author: Marc Eliot
Publisher: Dey Street Books

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In the opening lines of Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon, the biographer Marc Eliot references the notorious moment when Heston, the movie-star-turned-NRA president, thundered that the government could take his rifle “from my cold, dead hands.” Starting here is a plea on Eliot’s part. “There was so much more to Heston’s life than a single exclamation,” he writes. The episode “does not, by any stretch of the imagination, define who Charlton Heston was, all that he had accomplished in his extraordinary life, what made him tick as an artist and drove him as a man.”

Eliot is right that no life can be fairly reduced to a single moment (though surely anyone reading a Heston biography is aware the man was more than just those five words). But Icon fails to deliver the kind of complex portrait that intro promises. The book’s subject is a hugely important figure, but Eliot mostly avoids the things that make Heston historically notable. And what he does cover, he offers a surface-level look, brushing past contradictions and offering irrelevant tidbits instead of meaningful insights.

Despite the book’s subtitle, the thesis of which isn’t really explored or argued for, have any of Hollywood’s biggest stars retained less of a fan base than Heston? He’s hardly obscure, but now he’s mostly known for biblical epics, a genre that’s fallen out of favor; Planet Of The Apes and Soylent Green, still watched but decidedly camp; and Touch Of Evil, a masterpiece where his casting (as a Mexican man) is widely seen as the film’s biggest flaw. Unique among screen icons, he’s more interesting for his politics than his work or “story,” which presents obvious hurdles for a biography. His personal life seemed blissfully devoid of drama; he married young and happily (and was surprisingly shy growing up, faking a girlfriend by wearing a bracelet with a made-up girl’s initials on it), and he played it safe with the movies he made. Knowing that audiences liked him in heroic roles and historical epics, he gravitated toward those until he aged out of them, with a few excursions to the stage to play the same roles on multiple occasions. While undeniably charismatic, and able to command attention on huge canvases (something you can’t say of more nuanced actors), he lacked the kind of big personality that typified such collaborators as DeMille and Welles. He was such a square, Eliot quotes someone as saying, that he could’ve fallen out of a cubic womb.

This lack of conflict would be tricky for any writer, but Eliot too obviously stretches for drama, trying to make points land in the moment at the expense of a more cohesive take. At one point, noting a tapering of Heston’s popularity, he writes that, “A descending career line after relatively early success is not unusual in Hollywood... diminishing returns is the norm in an industry where youth is its most sellable commodity.” Ten pages later, the hit Midway “helped reaffirm [Heston’s] place in Hollywood’s hierarchy of stars with staying power.” He argues that Heston lost parts because of his right-wing beliefs, while at the same time noting he was too old to play them, while also mentioning the lifetime achievement awards he was being honored with.

There’s a sense that Eliot is simply going through the motions, that—having written bios of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and a dozen others—he was simply casting about for another manly man rather than driven by a genuine interest in his subject. The book is filled with unnecessary details, like when Heston is named one of the top 25 stars of the year and Eliot includes every preceding name. It’s as though his research is used to obscure a lack of insight, sometimes in perversely hilarious ways. At one point, a footnote explains that Star Wars, “later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope,” benefited from the post-Apes sci-fi boom and that “both films became long-running franchises.” Who knew?

Eliot shows little editorial judgment, giving something revealing, like Heston’s civil rights activism, the same attention and space as his obscure movies. At one point, he glides past an open letter where Heston calls for greater gun control in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations. Far too much time is spent on his movie career, especially since few of his lesser-known films seem worthy of rediscovery. Even fans might find it a slog to wade through endless deep cuts, and this focus is especially unforgivable since it means Heston only gets involved with the NRA with about 50 pages left.

Honestly, this subject should fill a volume on its own. Icon draws a credible line from Heston—who campaigned for pro-gun candidates, drew huge crowds, and wanted to be sent to close races—to the NRA’s current power, but Eliot isn’t interested in the result of one of the most consequential political trends of the past 50 years. He simply parrots comments from Wayne LaPierre and Heston’s son Fraser (“I don’t think he made a mistake supporting them, but maybe it went a little further than it should have.”), stepping back from any deeper analysis or context. A similar issue hampered a recent biography of George Lucas, but the stakes are obviously higher here, literally life and death.

It’s understandable that Eliot wants readers to see the whole of his subject’s life, and that essentially holding Heston responsible for the rate of gun violence (which has been in a long-term decline) is a charge that shouldn’t be levied lightly. But his reporting on this issue is wholly inadequate, especially since he implies that Heston’s involvement was due to his wanting to be back in front of cheering crowds at a time when his career was waning, the “cold, dead hands” line a catchphrase no different than “let my people go” in delighting audiences. Plenty of biographies find poignancy in their subjects wanting to remain relevant, but given the real-world impact Heston’s advocacy had, it is an abdication of duty for Eliot to avoid digging deeper.


Purchase Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon here, which helps support The A.V. Club.