Apr 6, 2008


We’re almost at a point where a complete generation of screen legends has passed into the great unknown. Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Cary Grant to name a few and with the recent passing of Richard Widmark (last week) and icon Charlton Heston (last night!), the list just keeps growing. I’ve been trying to think out of the larger-than-life screen legends of yesteryear, which are still among us and realize maybe Elizabeth Taylor is the only remaining member of that club…although I’m probably overlooking someone else.

Charlton Heston to me was everything that an American movie star should be – bold, a powerful, booming voice, confident swagger and stature, a jaw so square and tough it could probably crack a set of brass knuckles if ever a set came into contact with it, and a list of films most of which were box office hits and also stand out as true cinematic treasures. Just think, Heston was in PLANET OF THE APES, BEN-HUR (which he won an Oscar for), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE OMEGA MAN, SOYLENT GREEN, EL CID just to name a few, all of which air regularly, have multiple DVD releases, and can be instantly quoted (“Get your paws off me you damn, dirty apes!” instantly springs to mind. I daresay nobody could have sold that line like Heston), that’s an impressive list.

Heston will also be remembered for his staunch right-wing political views, particularly the right to bear arms (2nd amendment in the Constitution) a stance which in many circles brought him a lot of ridicule. However, you can’t get more American than standing up and fighting for a right that is clearly outlined in a document which essentially is the foundation for American society, and again Heston becomes quotable when who can forget him standing before that grand NRA convention stating (and I paraphrase) they can have his gun when they “pry it from his cold dead hands.” Once again, there was that booming voice, that confidence and passion that seemed to exemplify everything that makes the United States of America so great and so powerful. I kind of wish Heston had run for president or governor, he probably would have won. It just seems like perfect casting.

I had the opportunity to cross paths with Mr. Heston on 2 occasions. The first was at the premiere for a movie that the company I used to work had produced, CATS & DOGS in which Mr. Heston had provided the voice for one of the dogs. The other was at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of BEN-HUR, during a series which was showing every Best Picture winner every Monday, in order (from WINGS to CHICAGO). A frail Mr. Heston stood before the crowd and spoke about what he remembered about working on the film (this was shortly after the revelation that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s) which inspired a standing ovation, then left during the first intermission which caused the theatre to erupt in yet another standing ovation as he made his way down the aisle.

Last week, actor Richard Widmark also passed away. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know that Richard Widmark was still alive. I am quite the admirer of Mr. Widmark’s work, being an avid admirer of the art of film noir, a genre that Widmark excelled in (PANIC IN THE STREETS, THE STREET WITH NO NAME, NIGHT AND THE CITY, NO WAY OUT). He’s the bad guy you loved to hate, but also could play the protagonist – like in PANIC IN THE STREETS or THE ALAMO. One of my personal favorite Widmark roles is the racist criminal terrorizing Sidney Poitier in NO WAY OUT (1950 – not to be confused with the 1987 Kevin Costner film directed by Roger Donaldson with the same name which is not a remake). It’s one of those rare movies you just have to see, and is available on DVD as part of the extensive Fox Film Noir series. Widmark was the epitome of the crazed bad guy who you didn’t know when he would just pull out a gun and shoot you just because you blinked. While not exactly an iconic legend like Mr. Heston, Widmark will be remembered as a truly talented and skilled performer.

The one thing that I have noted with these recent deaths is the way that the current crop of entertainment reporters has been handling them. It seems that most of the entertainment correspondents are more concerned with what kind of brownies Paris Hilton likes, and use their jobs to hobnob and to get into all the great parties, hardly spending anytime in front of a movie screen or television. I have even noted that the reporting of the business side, outside of the trade magazines or business channels, is even kept to a minimum. So I wasn’t surprised when on Fox News this morning when a cute 20-something female who obviously hardly even knew who Charlton Heston was, started reading from a sheet of paper on her lap outlining his legacy, and then even went so far as to say that Heston had wanted to star in a movie about the circus called THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, but ended up doing something else with Cecil B. DeMille instead. The comedy of that is that Heston starred in the 1952 circus movie THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH which just happened to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and the movie went on the win Best Picture! So who compiled this information for this woman, who kept tripping over words and was so obviously unprepared and uneducated on the subject? Was she an intern that happened to be the only one available to read the obituary on air? If this was the case with such a big name as Charlton Heston, what did Fox do when someone like Mr. Widmark who is a little less widely known died? The incident sent me for the remote, switching over the MSNBC and they at least seem more informed. I’m a fan of Fox News channel in general, but this moment clearly shows the current state of entertainment reporting which is sadly lacking a perspective of cinema history as a whole, and more focused on the current antics of would-be celebrities whose only legacy will only be how screwed up they are.