December 9, 1999
Looking for Charlton Heston
Everyone knows Charlton Heston; or at least who he is: movie star and president of the National Rifle Association.
It was the inability to separate one persona from the other that made some patrons unhappy last week when he gave a reading (Dec. 2) at the Skirball Cultural Center. That evening had nothing to do with politics or gun control -- it consisted of Heston reading selections from Robert Frost, Shakespeare and The Bible -- all in a memorial tribute to a long time friend of his and of Skirball director Uri D. Herscher. But it seemed beside the point to several Jewish groups in Los Angeles.
Their response was fairly straightforward: Heston's very public political stance today, argued the critics, overshadows his role as actor; and it was therefore highly inappropriate for Heston to be featured at the Skirball Cultural Center (a center built with private funds, namely from the contributions of Jewish community philanthropists). In some ways this opposition was not unrelated to the charges leveled at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in recent weeks for hosting an exhibition which recounts the history of the sweatshops in America. In both instances a Jewish institution found itself at odds with the views of (some of) its patrons and, on a broader scale, out of step with the feelings of many Jews in Los Angeles. Why are we doing this, was the question many wanted answered.
Underlying the friction of course is the larger question of a museum's connection to its community. Is it independent and therefore supposed to provide cultural leadership? Or does it reflect the prevailing sentiments of its benefactors and supporters? On the strength of the limited evidence so far, the answer appears to be "a bit of each." From this corner, I would opt for more independence and leadership.
At the outset three years ago, Uri Herscher was clear about the Skirball's mission. Its major role would be to function as a cultural center that conveys the experience of Jews in America. But in part he also appears to have selected a track for the Center parallel to that of New York's 92nd Street Y: namely, the establishment of an address for the entire city, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. In this regard he features speakers and concerts and forums, not all of them necessarily Jewish, as well as art and cultural exhibitions. Heston, a movie star and icon, a non-Jew, and today a spokesman for what has become a strongly defended (and attacked) political position, would certainly qualify.
But -- there is always a but -- does Heston's performance at a special occasion come under the heading of cultural center program? The critics, who do not see this as a first amendment issue, see the invitation as Herscher's mistake.
For his part the Skirball president has tried to cast his decision in terms of leadership and principle. The Center and its president determine cultural policy, and that is the way a museum should function. "The Skirball does not impose any sort of litmus test, political or ideological, on those invited to present programs," he said in response to criticism from Jewish groups.
In fact "the Heston affair" seems to me both simpler and more complicated. The facts are the simple part. More than a year ago, Heston proposed paying a memorial tribute to Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a close friend of his who was Jewish and had been head of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. This was before the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and before the attack on the children at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. Hescher accepted with gratitude.
Of course by autumn gun control had jumped from political disagreement to emotional "litmus test."
Now for the more complicated part. In effect, Herscher was faced with a dilemma. Withdraw Heston's invitation or go along with his original plans? He chose the latter course.
Perhaps a wiser move might have been to place all the cards on the table and ask everyone to support him. Withdrawing Heston's invitation would have been ungracious -- the turning aside of a generous gesture on the part of the actor-lobbyist -- and a bad public relations move politically. It is true that museum directors are in the business of pleasing their board (and their donors) as well as championing art and cultural exhibitions. But there is also a public role within the city -- and beyond that, within the nation -- that needs to be advanced (and protected). There is also the matter of personal honor. Having made what I assume to be an initial political mis-step, Herscher was now careful not to compound it by caving in to opposition.
All this has set me to thinking. I already have my recommendation for next year's special evening. Vanessa Redgrave. She is one of my favorite actresses, brilliant on stage and screen. Her politics seem loony to me -- Israeli Jews are the villains, Palestinians are the victims -- but what an actress. The Skirball could hardly do better. And what a story for this newspaper. -- Gene Lichtenstein