Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston - was Ben-Hur a queen?

I've never really bought Gore Vidal's claim that he introduced a "gay subtext" to Ben-Hur, the 1959 Ancient Roman epic, that picked up 11 Oscars and starred the late Charlton Heston. Victims of Sunday afternoon and Bank Holiday TV schedulers will recall that in the movie Judah Ben-Hur and Messala (Stephen Boyd) - one a Jew the other a hard-wired son of the Empire - are close friends until they fall out over politics. When Vidal was recruited to do something to the clunking plot he pointed out that nothing but a lovers' break-up could account for the extraordinary animosity between the two men after boyhood affection.

According to Vidal, director William Wyler agreed to the insertion of a very subtle sexual motivation, with smart Boyd in on the wheeze. But no one was to mention this to Heston who might have burst his jockstrap at such make-believe. So Boyd was to act all bitter and queeny while Heston just sailed on not-noticing in a succession of manly poses up to and including the great chariot race.

Yet despite many viewings of the film I have yet to detect this gay subtext. I could very well believe that an arrogant and not very bright young Roman would over-identify his person with the state and take his friend's "disloyalty" personally. I can't think that something is a "subtext" when you can't see any actual evidence of it. A subtext implies that audiences are enabled subconsciously to understand the true nature of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala - which sounds like Freudian magic thinking to me. Something taboo doesn't become acceptable because it's perceived subconsciously. I don't doubt this grafted motivation was worked into the film at some level, to get the director and his sophisticated writers from A to Z, but in the end the film's own stated dynamics work quite well alone, held together by Heston's monstrous conventional and moral certainties. Image is a powerful thing.

However, I can well believe Vidal would have acted the bitch to rejection - his old movie anecdote is a feature of personal psychology I think and should be treated as entertaining projection.

Charlton Heston. RIP.

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