Ben Hur gay slur drives Heston crazy

Row over whether charioteer was in the closet may not be over, writes Tim Cornwell

Tim Cornwell
Wednesday 26 June 1996 23:02 BST

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Los Angeles - It is unclear whether this is a declaration of peace, or yet another act of war. Charlton Heston, in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, has called for an end to a "grossly overworked discussion" over the making of Ben Hur, a dispute which has pitted the conservative actor in a gladiatorial mud-fight with the left-wing writer Gore Vidal.

In more ways than one, the film is ancient history. It won 11 Academy Awards, the all-time record, in 1959. But the pair crossed swords when Vidal, in a television documentary on gay and lesbian images in film, claimed to have written a scene into Ben Hur - without Heston's knowledge - with clear homosexual overtones. They have been at it ever since.

Heston, who won the Oscar for best actor as the Jewish charioteer, dismissed Vidal's story. He accused him of making extravagant claims of authorship on a film script in which he played no part. It is plain that Vidal has delighted in irritating Heston. These days the actor, a close friend of the failing former president Ronald Reagan, is best known as a public spokesman for the National Rifle Association. At the NRA's convention this April, where the theme was reaching out to youth, images of Heston were shown on two huge video screens, intercut with a procession of young people, the new generation of gun-owning Americans. "There can be no torch to pass on where there is no flame," he intoned.

While Heston was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s, he does not seem to be remembered with great fondness. There is no "Heston" section in the shelves of Los Angeles video stores, as there is for most other leading actors. His films appear mostly under "Epics".

Screen credits for film writing are closely guarded by the Writers' Guild of America, and Vidal was not considered for one in Ben Hur. But he was apparently one of several writers enlisted to massage the script. Interviewed for the documentary "The Celluloid Closet", he said he persuaded the director to liven up the relationship between Ben Hur and his Roman rival, Massala, with a scene where Massala, played by Stephen Boyd, casts longing glances at Heston as they sip wine.

The sub-text, driving the scene but which was never made explicit, was that the two characters had been teenage lovers and that Massala wanted to kiss and make up. That was explained to Boyd but kept secret from Heston, who would have "fallen apart".

The story is not new, but its repetition outraged Heston. He claimed Vidal was brought on to the set for a three-day trial run, after which all his suggested scenes were thrown out.

The story "irritates the hell out of me," he added. Vidal responded by calling the actor's performances "astonishingly wooden", and each accused of the other of playing fast and loose with the truth.

Undeniably, film-makers in the 1950s were forced to dance around the topic of homosexuality. Censors at the Production Code Administration prohibited films from mentioning it. If certain characters were acceptably limp-wristed, they were never gay.

These days cross-dressing is almost standard fare - witness Mrs Doubtfire, or recently The Bird Cage, the Americanised La Cage aux Folles. Tom Hanks took on Aids in Philadelphia. But gay overtones can still be a sensitive subject. The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey, is provoking a lot of talk at the moment. Carrey plays "the cable guy" who comes to the home of Steven, played by Matthew Broderick, to install his cable television. He proceeds not just to fix his cable, but to fix his life. But largely papered over are the homosexual implications of Carrey's desperate desire for Steven to be his friend. He is psychotically jealous. For Hollywood, gayness is still not a comfortable theme.

While Heston has called for peace, it may not be quite the last round. He took another dig at Vidal by advising him, in the words of his friend, Mr Reagan, that "facts are stubborn things". It seems unlikely that Mr Vidal will let that go without a final burst of repartee.

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