Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ben-Hur and Gore Vidal

With the recent passing of Charlton Heston, Hollywood has lost yet another of it's larger-than-life screen stars. Kirk Douglas is really the last big star left who came to prominence in the 1940's and early 50's. Heston was never my favorite actor, and I disagree with everything he came to stand for later in his life. Although Heston actually started out as a Democrat, and was a very vocal supporter of civil rights. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, along with Burt Lancaster and Harry Belafonte, when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. When one of his films premiered at a segregated theater in Oklahoma, Heston picketed the theater. It's really too bad he became so conservative. Had he turned Republican about 10 or 15 years before he actually did, he might well have been President. Think how popular Ronald Reagan was as President, then imagine if Heston, who was actually an A-list Hollywood star, had run for President! I mean, he played Moses, for God's sake! Ben-Hur! Michelangelo! Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape! Soylent green is people! President Heston in a landslide!

Anyway, this got me thinking about my favorite Charlton Heston story, about Gore Vidal and the gay subtext of Ben-Hur. Gore Vidal wrote most of the screenplay for Ben-Hur, although he went uncredited at the time. Working with director William Wyler, Vidal needed to come up with a reason for the rivalry between Heston's Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala. So Gore decided that Ben-Hur and Messala had been lovers, and Messala wanted the relationship to continue, and Ben-Hur did not. Wyler didn't think it would fly, telling Vidal, "Gore, this is Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur! 'A tale of the Christ' or whatever that subtitle is. You can't do this with Ben-Hur..." Vidal convinced Wyler that none of the dialogue would hint at any kind of sexual relationship, and that it would all be shown by the expressions on the actor's faces. Wyler said to Vidal, "I'll talk to Chuck. You talk to Boyd. But don't you say a word to Chuck or he'll fall apart." According to Vidal, Heston was oblivious to the subtext, but Boyd got it and played the scene the way Vidal intended. After the scene was rehearsed, Vidal said to Wyler, "Chuck hasn't got much charm, has he?" Wyler replied, "No, and you can direct your ass off and he still won't have any."

The above quotations are taken from Gore Vidal's memoir, Palimpsest, which also features a great picture of Heston and Vidal on the set; Heston is grinning and has his hand on Vidal's shoulder.

3 comments:

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, so that's what all those clenched jaws in the chariot scene were about! And here I thought he just had a pebble in his sandal.

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Henry R. Kujawa said...

You know, that just makes such PERFECT sense! I never liked that movie, and could not for the life of me understand WHY Ben-Hur's oldest and best friend Messalla would so COMPLETELY turn on him, sell him into slavery, and have his family imprisoned for life in a dank, diseased-ridden dungeon. It was just sick! And even after the chariot race, when the guy lies dying, he STILL had to take one last stab at Ben-Hur, to make SURE he'd be miserable for the rest of his life, knowing what had happened to his family, but not knowing where they were. What a BASTARD!!!

By comparison, when I watched the silent version of the same film, the whole thing made perfect sense, and without all the excessive depressing angst. It continues to amaze me how so often silent films are MUCH better than their big-budgeted Technicolor Cinemascope remakes...