Neil Steinberg asked a useful question: “Few newspaper Web sites seemed able to usher Charlton Heston into the hereafter Sunday without using the word ‘legendary,’ and I can’t be the only one who wondered ‘legendary for what?’ Beside wooden acting and gun-nuttery, I mean.”

His observation reminds me of a conversation I was in a long time ago with some fierce litterateurs who argued Hemingway didn’t matter anymore, though, as someone eventually pointed out, it was Hemingway they’d spent the last 40 minutes rejecting.

I’m not even sure what “legendary” means in this context, but maybe it’s “Glad he’s finally gone, so we can go back to thinking about him as he was 30 years ago.” That’s what, to Steinberg’s dismay, everyone’s been doing. Steinberg’s Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper wrote a column about Heston in the same edition. “He was a towering presence, on and off the screen,” said Roeper. “There won’t be another like him.” And the paper’s Miriam Di Nunzio did a piece on Heston’s best DVDs. 

Over at the Tribune, film critic Michael Phillips wrote a eulogy that described Heston as “an emissary from an earlier era, a rock-solid throwback in his declamatory approach to acting, standing up to external circumstances of biblical proportion.” Meanwhile, Manohla Dargis went a little ape in the New York Times, callling Heston “one of the last American movie stars” and someone Orson Welles directed “brilliantly” in Touch of Evil, “making particularly memorable use of the actor’s physicality, his big, rangy body and the hard, clean right angles of his face.” Steinberg should note that talent had nothing to do with it.

You haven’t read anything yet. On his Web site, film critic Dave Kehr remembers that Heston was “the subject of the single most notorious pronouncement in the history of film criticism — Michel Mourlet’s proclamation that ‘Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema.'” Mourlet was just getting started. Kehr reprints the whole thing, and before he’s done Mourlet makes it known that through Heston, “mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”

Heston was legendary for what? For something that intelligent people were compelled to try to put into words at the considerable risk that some would sound like gibbering idiots.