Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The passing on an American icon

Charlton Heston died April 5. No matter what you may think of the man's politics, he was one of the great American actors of his generation.

We all know an actor that reminds us of someone in our lives. For me, Heston is one of those actors that remind me of my father. They had the same tall lanky build, the same stern exterior that hid an internal shyness, the same quite strength and the same resolve.

His movies are among some my favorites and it pains me to know that so many young people don't have the slightest clue who he is. So this blog will be an attempt to enlighten the masses in regards to Heston's work and the work of other Hollywood legends.

Here is a list of must see Heston films:
 The Greatest Show on Earth
 Touch of Evil
The Ten Commandments
Ben Hur
The Agony & The Ecstasy
Planet of the Apes
Will Penny
The Omega Man
Soylent Green
Airport 1975
True Lies

Two of my all time favorite movies are on that list- Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green. Some are epic films with Heston in the lead of an enormous cast, others are smaller roles, smaller films. In almost all of them, Heston is one of the best parts of the film. If you haven't seen them, go rent them today. There are others, of course. A career that spans nearly 5 decades has quite a bit to choose from. Check out IMDB.com.

Heston is only one of many Hollywood legends that are fading from the public consciousness. A short includes Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart,  Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy.

Of those, Jimmy Stewart is the name most likely to be known by college and high school students because of the annual broadcast of "It's A Wonderful Life". While this is a great film, no mistake, there are some many others that Stewart made that shine just as brightly:
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
The Shop Around the Corner (the original "You've Got Mail")
The Philadelphia Story
The Greatest Show on Earth
The Glenn Miller Story
Rear Window
The Spirit of St Louis
Bell, Book and Candle
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
The Cheyenne Social Club
There are more, of course, but those are a few of the best. 3 Hitchcocks, 1 Ford, 2 Capras, and 4 Oscar nominations and 2 wins.

Henry Fonda. What can one say about Henry? The patriarch of an American acting family and Oscar winner. His roles have covered classic American literature and plays brought to the screen, westerns, war heroes, presidents and more. With a nearly 50 year career in film, some of his performances and films are among the best of American cinema. He had long associations with Hollywood greats such as Jimmy Stewart, John Ford and John Wayne. Here is a selection of some his best:
Young Mr Lincoln
The Grapes of Wrath
My Darling Clementine
Fort Apache
Mister Roberts
12 Angry Men
How the West was Won
Spencer's Mountain
Fail Safe
In Harm's Way
Yours, Mine and Ours
The Cheyenne Social Club
On Golden Pond

Cary Grant sparkled on the screen every time. His dashing good looks, trademark voice and sense of humor made him one of Hollywood's most enduring leading men. British born as Archibald Leach, Grant was as comfortable with comedy as serious drama. A must see list includes:
Bringing Up Baby
Gunga Din
His Girl Friday
The Philadelphia Story
Arsenic and Old Lace
Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House
To Catch a Thief
An Affair to Remember
North by Northwest
Father Goose

It seems natural to move from Cary Grant to Katharine Hepburn. The two stars made several films together, including the classic "Bringing Up Baby". Hepburn holds the record for most Oscar nominations (12) and wins (4) by a single actor. Her work ranges from the comedic to westerns and period pieces to high drama. She was independent and cocky long before it was considered a positive trait in an actress. Among the things that set her apart from her peers, was her relationship with Spencer Tracy that spanned 25 years and never included marriage, since Tracy, as a Catholic, refused to divorce his wife. Check out these films:
Little Women (1933)
Bringing Up Baby
The Philadelphia Story
Woman of the Year
Adam's Rib
The African Queen
Desk Set
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
The Lion in Winter
Rooster Cogburn
On Golden Pond

And from Kate we move to Spencer Tracy, of course.  Tracy is old enough that I would be surprised if anyone younger than 40 had the slightest idea who he was.  He films, sadly, don't get the airplay that some of the others on this list enjoy.  He has 2 Oscar wins and 9 nominations to his credit.  Here's a must see list of Tracy films:
Captain's Courageous
Boy's Town
Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1941)
Woman of the Year
Adam's Rib
Father of the Bride (1950)
Desk Set
The Old Man & The Sea
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

In short, there is more to American cinema than big bucks and special effects.  Many recent films are among the best in the world, but worth considering and remembering are those older gems that owed less to special effects and big budgets and more to stellar acting and story-telling.  Part of our American culture and heritage is found in our films.  Older nations have great ruins and artwork.  As the new kid on the block we rely on newer formats.  We can study modern American history through film and quickly learn more about the collective consciousness of an era than is easily done through any other medium.

Watch a few great B movie sci-fi films to see how pervasive the fear of nuclear war and communism was in the 50s and early 60s.  My favorite is "Them" (1954);  see the giant mutated ants eat people! It's second only to that classic "educational" film "Duck and Cover".  Or the original "The Thing", a very thinly veiled warning about communism.

And there's a whole parade of "turn on, tune in, and drop out" films from the 60s extolling or warning about (depending on your point of view)  the wanton drug use and "loose morals" of the youth. "Easy Rider", "The Graduate" and "Midnight Rider" are the best examples of this.  

The list could quite literally go on and on.  Film is our nations' original contribution to art of theater.  Not all films are art but some transcend the medium.  Just like not all actors are worth remembering.  But there are those that are.  Broaden your horizons and check out the films listed above.  You won't like them all, but I think you'll find a few gems among them. While you're watching, you're bound to discover more actors than the ones I profiled.  Branch out to their films.  And maybe look at your generation's actors in a new way.  After all, who are you going to want to tell your children to watch as examples of your generations best?