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April 7, 2008
Charlton Heston: A unique talent

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Charlton Heston,who died Saturday at age 83, was the kind of actor they don't make anymore - and a perfect fit for the kind of movie they don't make anymore.

Heston exuded such tremendous moral authority in "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" that he could withstand the more over-the-top moments of those epics.

That's because his performances were just under the top. Heston blazed with so much intensity that even his laughter could seem violent.

His style represented the antithesis of Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, Heston's almost exact contemporaries. While these Method-trained actors reached stardom in the 1950s with performances mining the psychological complexity of the individual troubled soul, the quintessential Heston character had larger goals, like parting the Red Sea.

But even though Heston's most famous roles were larger than life, he was capable of subtlety. It was just a different type of subtlety, one based more in physicality than emotion.

Think about the scene in "Ben-Hur" when his wronged Jewish prince, chained in the galley of a Roman ship, is forced, along with other prisoners, to change his rowing speed to meet the demands of their sadistic captors.

As other men collapse, Judah shows strain but never exhaustion, and Heston, while exhibiting palpable physical strength, shows defiance and determination. His look tells us his character is doing what he must do now while looking to a future when he can avenge what's been done to him and his family.

Heston famously learned to drive a chariot for one of the most spectacular scenes in movie history. But for my money, he impressed just as much in the rowing scene.

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