In the early spring of 1993, I took a Greyhound bus from Toronto to Winnipeg, a trip I'd made several times before. Typically, a traveller could expect to finish a novel or two, converse with various fellow travellers, and still spend hours contemplating the spare Canadian Shield landscape. This time around, I was given a third distraction: television. Or, more precisely, a monitor that played a series of straight-to-video productions.
I chose not to spend the four dollars for the ear-phones, but when the screen started to roll the opening credits for A Man For All Seasons, starring Charlton Heston, my seat-mate generously offered me his phones, and I jumped at the chance. I watched, mouth agape, while Heston towered over his would-be persecutors, scowling imperiously as they plotted to hedge the hapless Thomas More toward execution, Henry-The-VIII-style. All traces of Paul Scofield's landmark performance were cleared from memory. Where Scofield's More was diminutive, Heston's was now domineering; inner torment was replaced with moral certitude, ironic whimsy with a contemptuous sneer. When Heston's More was finally railroaded toward the executioner's block, it came as a relief not just to the conspirators, but to the audience as well. This cat was no "man for all seasons"; he was a hectoring killjoy, whose season had lasted all too long.
This scene came to mind as I recently re-watched Soylent Green. SG is typical of its genre — a mostly tedious distopia, projected from the Toffler template of the 70s. The more costly attempts to look futuristic are predictably amusing (one character plays a video game that looks one step below "Pong"), while the stuff done on the cheap rings discomfortingly true (people sleeping en masse in stairwells, sweaty characters complaining about "the greenhouse effect," etc). The pleasant surprise was rediscovering what had become for Heston a stock-in-trade performance.
SG's Detective Robert Thorn is a cookie-cutter role that could be interchanged with any number of 70s Heston performances, from Astronaut George Taylor to Robert Neville, "The Omega Man." Thorn is essentially a lout and a bully, who swaggers from scene to scene projecting an air of malign impatience. He uses force and extortion to get what he wants, but occasionally his façade lapses to reveal a man with a sentimental soft-spot. Clearly the guy needs to Learn A Lesson. And because the set-up requires two hours of your movie-watching time, you know in advance that The Lesson is going to be a doozy.
One decade later, both Soylent Green and Charlton Heston were punchline fodder. DEVO referred to SG nearly as often as it referred to genetic manipulation and pornographic grotesquery, and Saturday Night Live pulled countless yucks from an agreeable Heston — one of Phil Hartman's better gags was a command performance of Heston's Greatest Hits: "Soylent Green ... IS PEOPLE!! AAAAARRGH!!" Planet Of The Apes — "You sonsabitches ... YOU BLEW IT ALL UP!! AAAAARRGH!!" etc.
The best punchlines, of course, sneak up on you. Planet of the Apes works because the disconnect — apes rule humans - is so total it distracts you from the punchline right to the bitter end. Rod Serling was a master at that sort of thing, while SG's Harry Harrison was one of those lamentable joke-tellers whose premature chortling at his own cleverness pulls the snap from the payoff.
Heston clearly tired of the joke, though, and took an ill-advised turn from those lout-with-a-heart-of-gold roles to become the strident and thoughtless spokesman for the NRA — Thomas More, with a loaded AK-47; lout sans heart. What an astonishment it was, then, to be moved to tears by his performance as The Player King in Kenneth Branagh's epic production of Hamlet. Who'd have thought the lout was capable projecting not just an imperial mien, but a majestic depth of emotion as well? Geez — now you actually wanted to see him try his hand at King Lear!
His physicality — his patrician bearing - was Heston's great trademark, of course. It was, as only he could intone with such gravitas, "My blessing — and my curse." It worked in his favor when his directors (and I include Michael Moore) set it off-kilter. But Hollywood seems to have lost this horseshoe-in-a-kid-glove touch. Ben Affleck, for instance, could become the new Heston, but the current zeitgeist's narrative componentry is all wrong: movies start with the hero as a gentle soul driven to violent deeds, never considering the rich possibilities of reversing the order. Sad, really, when what we need now, more than ever, is a return of The Lout Who Learns A Lesson.