Soylent Green is one of those movies that most people of my generation just sort of know without having actually seen it. That’s a shame, because it’s actually really good. Spoilers ahead, I guess, although how you got this far without learning that “IT’S PEEEEEEEOPLE! SOYLENT GREEN IS MADE OUT OF PEEEEOPLE,” I don’t know.
Soylent Green is “serious” science fiction, the kind of stuff that claims to make you think about serious issues by holding a dark mirror up to our own reality. It mostly earns its credibility stripes by trying to depress the hell out of you. Some of this comes from the plot, with its suicide machines and institutionalized cannibalism… but only some. Even if it had turned out at the end that SOYLENT GREEN IS MADE OUT OF LEEEENTILS, SORT OF LIKE THE NAME IMPLIES, it would still be one of the most fundamentally depressing movies I have ever seen. Or maybe depressing is the wrong word: it’s anhedonic, incapable of pleasure, and in fact quite consciously opposed to the very idea.
Humanity in the world of the film is so epically, catastrophically boned, that taking the smallest human pleasure seems like fiddling while Rome burns. The film saves its most stinging critique for the kind of swinging 60s hedonism pictured at left… what Austin Powers lovingly mocks, Soylent Green viciously condemns. But “high art” doesn’t get let off the hook. We learn that Beethoven is the soundtrack of choice in the suicide booths. Most depressing of all is the film’s attack on cinema: the suicide ritual essentially takes place in a movie theater, with shiny colors and pretty music lulling the customer to sleep as the deadly poison does its work. And Soylent Green isn’t just attacking some notion of mainstream entertainment, the way that Idiocracy is when it shows us Ass, the Movie. Soylent Green is attacking itself, THIS movie, and you the viewer! The credits scroll over the same classical music and nature footage that’s used in the suicide booth sequence. “Enjoy your shiny lights and pretty music, maggot,” the filmmakers seem to be saying, “because we are killing you while you watch this! And afterwards, we’ll eat your corpse!” Wheeeeeeee.
Nevertheless, the movie manages to be fun, thanks to the efforts of the one and only Charlton “Chuck” Heston. He’s also the reason for this post. Soylent Green‘s dystopic future is worth thinking about, but probably not worth Overthinking about. Heston, on the other hand…
It’s hard to think of another actor that fills quite the same space in the popular imagination. Was he a great actor, or a terrible one? Our culture can’t seem to quite make up its mind. Myself, I tend to go back and forth on this, and if you’d asked me a week ago I probably would have told you that Heston’s performances fall into the category of so-bad-they’re-good. After watching Soylent Green, I’ve reconsidered.
What makes an actor good? (I’m looking for the generally accepted wisdom here.) Believability, for one. We want to feel like the character actually exists, like the actor is bringing this person to life. Emotional depth, rather than surface flashiness. Versatility. Staying true to the character, whatever that means. A good actor also needs a good character to play, someone who goes through a compelling emotional arc that will let the actor expose some interesting aspect of the human psyche. (This idea of exposure strikes me as very Freudian… call it the theater-as-therapy concept)
Looking back at the great Heston moments — and note that his performances are never about arcs, are always about these wonderful crystalline moments — we encounter a different set of priorities. We don’t care about believability. We don’t care that it’s basically the same performance every time. We don’t care whether his performance is “deep,” or it’s true to the character. Actually, we don’t care about the character at all, or even if there IS a character: the “cold dead hands” speech is a Heston moment par excellence, which might begin to explain why people have such difficulty separating Heston the performer from Heston the man. What does matter is the delivery, the grain of his voice, and the sonorous quality of the language itself. All “surface” aspects of his performance, if you like. This kind of acting is very much out of fashion in dramas, but you do get it in comedies — ain’t no one cares if Adam Sandler is staying in character — which might be why comedians never get nominated for acting awards.
So is Charlton Heston a bad actor? Lord, no. He’s just a comic actor, who for some reason made a career of dramatic roles. I don’t mean that he’s playing it for laughs… and for all that Heston sometimes inspires laughter, I don’t think he’s funny, exactly. The emotion that I feel while watching him is not so much hilarity but rather glee: a subtle difference, but a significant one. I only call him a comic actor because his acting style is encountered almost exclusively in comedies. One exception from more recent years would be Bill Nighy, whose Heston-ish performances in Underworld and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have inspired a lot of gleeful chuckles in this neck of the woods. Again, it’s obvious that Nighy isn’t a bad actor, and he’s not playing it for laughs… but it’s also obvious that something unusual is going on in his performance.
When we like something despite/because it’s bad, we tend to call it a guilty pleasure. I do feel a little guilty watching Heston tear up the screen at the end of Soylent Green, but it’s not the same guilt. The triumph of surface over substance is the triumph of fun over “art.” The pleasure we take in watching Heston is hedonistic. The guilt we feel isn’t because he’s a bad actor, it’s because we are hedonists when we watch him, feeling the same hedonistic shame that we feel when we drink too much wine or lick the spatula after frosting the cake. In Soylent Green, our hedonistic appreciation of Heston arguably sells out the film’s dark vision of the future, but I’ll take it. On the whole I prefer happiness to the alternative.