Wayne's World 2
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes
The Agony and the Ecstasy
The Ten Commandments
I have gone back and forth about the first and second spot on this list several times. But either way, the final 2 actors would be deserving of anyone's number one spot.
Charlton Heston was a rare kind of man. One of the things that I believe made his performances so good was his interior sense of integrity. Not only did he have the courage to hold beliefs when they were unpopular, but he would publicly and stand up for those beliefs. He marched for civil rights along Dr. Martin Luther King when it was still dangerous to his career and he spoke out for gun rights even when attacked by filmmakers like Michael Moore. Even if you did not agree with him, you could recognize his convictions.
This conviction along with his natural charisma set Heston apart from almost every other actor. Many people have played the part of Moses, but no one ever has done so like Heston. This is his best known part. I remember he recounted a story where someone said they named their child after him. He said "Oh no, you named the poor child 'Charlton?'" They said, "No, we named him 'Moses.'"
People remember the booming voice, the long beard, and the dramatic gestures. But go back and watch it again from the beginning and see a master artist at work. His Moses is not a pious painting, but a conflicted soul. He is torn by his love of his Pharaoh and Nefertiti and his Hebrew people and his God. When he confronts his real mother, watch his resigned acceptance of the truth. When he tells Nefertiti that her son will die, hear the pity and regret in his voice.
Heston became famous for his epics. His rage-filled Judah Ben-Hur is a tour-de-force performance. You can feel his sadness as he realizes his best friend is evil and you can see the rage in his heart with his desire for revenge. We can see that same kind of violent, noble spirit in El Cid where he plays a man trying to live up to a legend that he cannot match.
One of his best turns of this classic-Heston period is as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy. The story is not only an introspection into the artistic soul, but it is a battle of wills between himself and Pope Julius (a fantastic Rex Harrison). The movie explores the nature and importance of art, but the main artistry is in Heston's performance. He lets us see the slowly awakening soul. He moves from vanity to virtue, though not simply or perfectly. Heston lets us see the wild passion of what real beauty can inspire against all odds.
But Heston was not a one-note player of virtuous heroes. People mostly remember the weird sci-fi aspects of Planet of the Apes. But his Taylor is actual much more cruel and savage than the apes themselves. Notice how callously and cavalierly he deals with loss after the crash or how he mockingly laughs at the planted American flag. While we root for Taylor because he is the one speaking human, it should be noted that he does not bring much heroism to the story. Heston plays him as a man with pain in his heart, especially in that final, haunting scene. This is a man so broken that he would destroy the world just because he could.
I think, however, his best performance was as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Here, Heston plays an out and out villain. He speaks so casually about murder and destruction. And yet he projects a false sincerity. I would encourage you when you have the time to watch the entirety of his soliloquy to the mob. Heston breathes life and power into every syllable of Shakespeare (in fact, Heston is one of only 3 actors who can do Shakespeare in an American accent and not have it sound off). I have watched that scene countless times and still marvel at it. What impresses me so much is how layered it is. It is mock sincerity, but it is completely believable mock sincerity. As the omniscient audience we can see the lie behind Antony's eyes, and yet we understand completely the mob believe his story. The seen is a master's class in acting.
It is no wonder that when they joked in Wayne's World 2 that they needed a "better actor" that they went with Heston.
And finally, Kenneth Branagh cast Heston as the lead player in Hamlet. You can see Branagh's Hamlet marvel at Heston's performance, and I can't help but imagine that was Branagh's actual reaction. At the time of the movie, Heston was well past his prime. You can see the stiffness in his movement. But even in those aching limbs he presented raw acting power. And that was what was magically about Heston. When he took on a role, it was with such incredible conviction that you could not help but be transported.
Charlton Heston was a star in the truest sense of the word. He earned all of his accolades. He burned with a fire that is unmatched by anyone. And his talent should light the way for movie lovers for years to come.