The Alternate View Goes to the Movies
I watched the movie True Lies the other night. It’s a wonderful action-adventure comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, directed by James Cameron. I saw it the first time when it came out in the ’90s. For a movie buff like me, it’s entertaining in its own right to reflect on the biographies of the actors. This was Arnold after his first two successes in Terminator movies, but well before his time serving as “the Governator” of California. Jamie Lee Curtis has one of the solidest Hollywood pedigrees out there, being the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and it shows both in her acting and her exceptional beauty.
Schwarzenegger of course has appeared in a many SF related movies. In addition to the Terminator franchise, he starred in Predator, The Running Man, and Total Recall (based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”). Even True Lies is on the borderline between straight action-adventure and science fiction. Jamie Lee Curtis is better known for her horror movies (that is, among her genre credits) than for her SF outings, although she was in the movie Forever Young with Mel Gibson, which was a pleasant SF love story. With The Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens, and Avatar, James Cameron is as recognized in the realm of science fiction cinema as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. But the reason I wanted to watch True Lies that night was because I had just finished reading In The Arena, the autobiography of Charlton Heston (ISBN 0-684-80394-1), and Heston has a small but vital role in the film that no other actor could fill.
If you’re unfamiliar with True Lies, here’s a bit of background. Schwarzenegger plays a secret agent for a CIA-like agency. His cover is that of a computer company sales executive. Even his dear and long suffering wife Jamie Lee and his daughter (played by a young Eliza Dushku, well known for her later work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other somewhat-SF TV series) have no idea what hubby does when he goes off to work. At home Arnold is a tedious nerd, with (apparently) no life apart from his job, which he (apparently) really loves. I won’t go any deeper into the plot, but for Arnold to portray this character in this kind of film, he can’t be the kind of loose cannon, action hero, Terminatoresque sort of guy we have all come to know from most of his other movies. For one thing, such a man could never convincingly be boring and uninteresting at home; he wouldn’t even have that kind of cover, let alone be able to hide his job from his friends and family.
For director Cameron to maintain the essential “suspension of disbelief” and keep his film from becoming just another silly special effects spectacular, he needed an anchor to hold the whole shebang in reality. Going with the metaphor, Schwarzenegger is an aircraft carrier of an actor, so Cameron had to cast an enormous anchor to keep him in place.
He chose Moses.
This makes sense. An actor’s onscreen persona is as much shaped by his previous roles as it is by his acting ability. Heston was one of the last of the true Movie Stars, and also a fine actor. He had bested an army of gorillas in Planet of the Apes, defeated his Roman antagonist in a chariot race (perhaps the most iconic set piece ever!), and parted the Red Sea. He was more than a match for a body builder with an Austrian accent, best known for playing an emotionless machine. As Heston relates it, Cameron told him, “I need you because you can plausibly intimidate Arnold.”
Heston did not consider his role as intimidating boss man Spencer Trilby to be anything more than a cameo. He only appears in a few short scenes, and these are just meetings between him and Schwarzenegger’s team. Heston only brings up the matter in the context of explaining why he played Cardinal Richelieu straight in the romantic swashbuckling 1973 remake of The Three Musketeers. Director Richard Lester had told him he needed to be the “solid center” of the movie. Farcical as that film was, the Cardinal was not joking.
Cameo or not, when Heston is on the screen, even with Schwarzenegger in the room, there is no doubt who is in charge, why he is in charge, and what will happen to you if you forget it. Then in his early seventies, Heston is ramrod straight and still moving like an athlete. His character has close-cropped gray hair and he wears an eye patch. Speaking with intimidating assurance, he minces no words and engages in no friendly banter.
Yes, Arnold looked intimidated. He probably wasn’t even acting.
I wanted to write about Charlton Heston because while reading his autobiography I discovered that he had not just acted in several seminal SF movies, but that he had been, as much as anyone, responsible for them as well. And for that we owe it all to Ben Hur.
Ben Hur was a phenomenally successful movie, setting the benchmark for future epics for many years to come (a new benchmark was set by The Lord of the Rings). It stayed in theaters worldwide for over a year in some places and made enough money to save MGM studios. Nominated for 12 Academy awards, winning 11 of them (including best actor for Heston), it was a feat not repeated until James Cameron’s Titanic did it in 1998 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. As alluded to above, the chariot race is perhaps the single most memorable action sequence in any movie in the entire history of cinema. Though Ben Hur came out the year I was born, I only saw it for the first time when it came on TV in 1971. I still remember the buzz among the boys in my elementary school about that cool chariot race. Though Heston was not the only actor considered for the lead role, today it is hard to imagine anyone else occupying it.
On page 236 Heston has this to say: “After Ben Hur won all the Oscars, I did understand that my situation had altered, radically. I could now not only pick my shots, to a large extent I could control them.” When I said Heston was responsible for some SF movies, I did not of course mean that these movies would not have existed at all in some form if not for him. We may or may not have had Planet of the Apes. We may or may not have had Solyent Green. But without Heston, we would have had significantly different movies, much different than just having another actor in his role.
Planet of the Apes, for instance, was being strongly pushed for by producer Arthur Jacobs. When Heston first saw the idea, as he says on page 373: “The novel was singularly uncinematic; there wasn’t even a treatment outlining an effective script. Still, I smelled a good film in it.” Jacobs had come up to Heston’s house with a portfolio of paintings for possible scenes and made his pitch. “When Frank Schaffner came by, he liked it enough to commit as director, but Arthur was a long way from persuading a studio to put up any actual money to make the movie.” But what Jacobs did have was Charlton Heston willing to play the astronaut, and Schaffer willing to direct.
Eventually 20th Century Fox agreed to make the movie. The rest is history. Multiple sequels, a TV series, a remake, and a recent reboot testify to the power of the idea behind the original. Heston had indeed smelled a good film. He discusses the making of the movie over several pages; it’s quite illuminating. On a personal note, a few years ago my daughter Ashley, then 14, wanted to see the movie. She watched it on DVD. I wondered how she’d react when she got to the end and saw that powerful image of the Statue of Liberty rising out of the sand. Ashley was angry! “It was Earth the whole time!” I’m actually glad she felt that way. It means the specter of nuclear war and human self-annihilation, by that means at least, does not haunt the minds of her generation. Maybe we did a few things right since 1968.
Of the wildly dystopian movie Solyent Green, based on the book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, Heston says (page 476) he had wanted to make it for a long time. Sounding rather like an Analog editorial, he adds: “Since I strongly believe that overpopulation is by far the greatest problem the world faces, this would be my only message movie.” The movie was a big success but Heston thought his most important contribution to the film was his decision to cast Edward G. Robinson as “Sol,” the aging “book,” one of the few people in that fictional New York City of 2022 still able to read and use the library. Robinson had been famous since the ’30s, and had worked with Heston in The Ten Commandments. They were very good friends. There comes a point in the movie where Sol has had enough of his overpopulated, overheated world and is determined to “go home.” He enters a facility where he is gently euthanized while video plays all around him of how beautiful the world used to be.
Heston describes with quiet poignancy the tale beyond the film moment. Robinson knew he was dying when he took the role, though no one else did. That death scene was the very last scene he ever filmed. “For Eddie, he was finishing as an actor, standing for the last time on a sound stage, where he’d lived so richly, for so much of his life. Twelve days later he was dead. No actor could ask for a better way to go.”
One of the other reasons I chose to write about the movies for this particular column is because this is an election year. I didn’t want to fan the flames of political controversy in the pages of Analog in what is shaping up to be a fiery campaign season. In the Arena is an exceptional autobiography written by an exceptionally successful actor who knows enough to stick primarily with that which made him famous. Though Heston became a conservative icon in his later days, the book was published before his leadership days at the NRA. He spends a little bit of time explaining some of his views in the last chapter, but he doesn’t preach (except once, see below), nor does he dish any dirt. If ever an autobiography took to heart the admonition “If you can’t say anything nice . . .” Heston’s is it.
With respect to political views and affiliations in the arts, I’d like to leave you with this. Starting on page 537, Heston discusses filming A Man For All Seasons for Ted Turner. Among his costars was Vanessa Redgrave, and upon her he lavishes praise, explaining why he thinks she is the greatest actress alive. He adds this paragraph: “Politically, Vanessa and I could hardly be farther apart. I’m a conservative; her radical beliefs make Jane Fonda sound like Herbert Hoover. I refuse to believe that I’ve lost parts because of my politics; Vanessa is openly blacklisted because of her anti-Zionist convictions. The film and theater communities should be ashamed of themselves.”
Amen to that.
Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey D. Kooistra