His last performance of Shakespeare was appropriate â€“ The Player King in Kenneth Branaghâ€™s film of Hamlet. To see Charlton Heston play the old actor is to understand why Lord Laurence Olivier called him Americaâ€™s greatest Shakespearean actor.
When, in high school, he saw a performance of Twelfth Night he knew then and there that acting Shakespeare was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He wooed his wife Lydia reading passages from Macbeth. And he made his Broadway debut in a production of Antony and Cleopatra, and continued to play Shakespeare on stages throughout his life. On the screen we saw him inÂ Julius Caesar (1950), MacbethÂ (1951), again in Julius Caesar (1970), Antony and Cleopatra (1972), and finally in Hamlet (1996)
No one explained the difference between acting for the camera and acting on the stage better:
Â â€œâ€˜What’s the difference between acting for a camera and on the stage?” Focus, I guess, is the best way to put it. In the theater, a play lives on the stage; the company builds it there in rehearsals, and then the actors live in it during the performance, moving through the play each night and making it happen again, from beginning to end, as if for the first time. The shape of it can change a littleâ€”it usually does, in a long run. The actors can grow in their parts, or diminish. New actors can come in, changing it again. But the play, and the people in it, are re-created for every performance.
â€œA film is shot in fragments, like tiles in a mosaic to be assembled later, almost never in sequence. On the first day of shooting, you may play a scene describing a murder to the victim’s daughter, your wife, having just met the actress playing the part. The actor playing her father may not even have been cast; his death scene may be scheduled for next month on a mountain in a state you’ve never visited. Yet you first must play this revelation scene, set later in the story, as though you’d already played the murder scene.
â€œWhat’s more, if you mix a drink to calm her, you must toss the ice in the glass when neither of you is speaking, to avoid blurring the line for sound; you must carry it high enough to show in the bottom of the frame, and hand it to her at precisely the same moment in each take of each angle, so it doesn’t leap in and out of the shot in the editing. Every move you make has to end with your toe on a precise tape mark (they’ll use a sandbag instead for actors who are bad at this, but you’re not supposed to be bad at it). When you embrace the actress, the moves are even more exact, to avoid blocking her chin with your shoulder, or leaning into her key light and throwing a shadow on her face. If you think this distracts from what everyone imagines to be the sensual delights of playing love scenes, you’re dead rightâ€¦.
â€œWhat’s crucial to all this is that it has to become automatic, done with the casual ease of a veteran shortstop handling a hot grounder and making the throw to first seem routine. What you must think about is the scene, the man you’re playing, what he’s thinking, what he wants at this moment, if you do this, if the climax of the scene suddenly catches fire and you know you really nailed it, it’s likely the script supervisor will say, “I’m sorry, but when you threw her back on the bed, your jacket came open… it’s never done that in any of the other angles.”
â€œâ€™Ah, Jesus!â€™ you say. â€˜That really worked… I don’t know if I can give you that again. Does the damn jacket really matter here? You’ll go to her close-up as she hits the bed, anyway, won’t you?â€™â€
â€œâ€™Yeah, I think I will,â€™ says the director. â€˜I’m printing this one; it’s pure gold. But just in case it doesn’t cut, could you give me one more, just for safety?â€™ So you try it again, for safety.â€ (Heston, In the Arena, 96-97)
When Charlton Heston screened The Ten Commandments for his grandson, he was asked â€œWhy did Moses have to die?â€
The great actor replied, â€œI think maybe God decided Moses has done his work.â€
And now Charlton Heston completed his work.
Well done, good and faithful player.