John Huston “shot forty pictures in forty-six years, between 1941 and 1986,” Jeffrey Meyers writes, “and probably made more great films than any other American director.” My only complaint about that sentence is: Why “probably”? Huston’s first film was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Maltese Falcon,” his last an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Each is a masterpiece, and there are at least five others between them: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), “The African Queen” (1951), “Fat City” (1972) and “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975).
The list is mine, not Meyers’s. He rates “The Man Who Would Be King” a bit lower than I do and “The Misfits” (1961) and “Under the Volcano” (1984) higher. But that is neither here nor there. As a lifelong admirer of Huston’s work, I find Meyers’s analysis for the most part astute and his evocation of Huston’s sprawling, eventful life very much on target. Meyers churns out books, mostly biographies, at a rate that must give pause even to Joyce Carol Oates, and they are uneven at best, but when he is good, he is very good, and “John Huston: Courage and Art” is very good, indeed. Like most of Meyers’s other books, it relies heavily on secondary sources, but there is perhaps as much to be said for synthesis as for original research, and Meyers makes the most of the many books and articles to which he has turned.
Born in Missouri in 1906, Huston had an unhappy and somewhat nomadic childhood. His father, Walter Huston, was a struggling actor who was mostly absent from his life, and his mother, Rhea, was, in his own words, “dominating, demeaning, hysterical, overbearing, proud, protective.” Eventually, his father became notably successful both on Broadway and in Hollywood, and father and son became very close as adults, but first John had to survive a misdiagnosis of “an enlarged heart and chronic nephritis,” which led his mother to confine him for two years, leading him as an adult to ensure “that the loneliness and boredom he’d suffered as an invalid would never recur.” He “kept constantly busy, often moved around from place to place, and surrounded himself with a wide circle of colleagues and friends, lovers and wives.”
He had five wives and uncountable lovers. He was tall and lean, with an arresting voice – “rich, gentle and cultivated; somber, hypnotic and seductive; soothing, melodic and mannered” — a combination that women found irresistible. He had affairs with some of his leading ladies, including Mary Astor and Olivia de Havilland, the latter “an exceptional relationship that lasted, with many sharp peaks and deep depressions, for [a] decade.” Sex “was part of the Huston repertoire, a pastime as compulsive as drinking, gambling, hunting, writing and filmmaking. . . . He enjoyed seduction and liked to exercise his charm and power, but he was easily bored, hated to be tied down and soon lost interest. He was well aware of his own faults: his selfishness, infidelity and occasional cruelty; his indifference to women’s emotional needs and physical illness, to his wives’ alcoholism and mental decline. But like a relay runner handing over the baton, another woman was always ready to take him over.”
His indifference extended to his children, two of whom — Angelica and Tony — he had with his third wife, Enrica Soma – and a third, Danny, in an extramarital relationship with Zoe Sallis. Soma also had a daughter, Allegra, by the writer John Julius Norwich, whom Huston treated as his own after Soma’s death. Though he paid little attention to his children when they were small, he took considerably more interest in them as adults, trying to help with their careers and, in Angelica’s case, directing her to superb effect in “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) and “The Dead.”
His personal shortcomings were more than balanced out, in the minds of many who knew him, by his great strengths. Though he may never have genuinely and deeply loved anyone, he was an immensely loyal friend and colleague, generous, fun-loving, attentive. Directing brought out the lover in him, as an actress who played a minor part in “The Maltese Falcon” nicely summarized it: “You felt you were working in an atmosphere of love. You were with a director who loved every one of you and wanted everyone to be good in his own way. He made everything very intimate to you. What he had to say to you was very quiet, in your ear. He could illuminate just what he wanted with a few words. He made you feel somehow that you were so important to the picture. And it only led to good performances.”
That movie was, as mentioned above, an adaptation of a novel. Until reading Meyers’s biography, I had not fully realized just how infatuated with literature Huston was or how essential it was to his art:
“Huston not only had a commanding knowledge of serious literature but, even rarer in Hollywood, a respect, reverence for it. He didn’t consider movies a high art, like painting and writing, and respected the author, not the director, as the auteur. Thirty-four out of thirty-seven of his feature films were adaptations of novels, stories or plays. He worked with many major writers: James Agee, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood. And he transformed into cinematic images the books of many important authors: Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Stephen Crane, Herman Melville, Carson McCullers, Rudyard Kipling, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm Lowry and James Joyce.”
With the notable exceptions of “Under the Volcano” and “The Dead,” the works of literature he chose to adapt were not themselves masterpieces but works with arresting characters, strong themes — in particular the theme of male quests against powerful odds — and engaging plots. He seems to have known intuitively that great literature usually is not susceptible to adaptation because it has depths the screen cannot touch, viz., all the failed adaptations of “The Great Gatsby” and the works of William Faulkner. But whatever the merits of the works he chose to adapt, he always approached them with deep respect and produced films that were far more faithful to the originals — especially in dialogue — than is generally the case when filmmakers get their hands on literature. Small wonder that the writers whom he knew respected him as much as his actors did.
He made some bad films as well as some great ones — among them “The Bible” (1966), “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967) and “Annie” (1982) – but he spent money more lavishly than he earned it, so he was pretty much open to any film project that came his way with the promise of a big payday. As sins go, this one is venial, and certainly is no greater than the one a book publisher commits when it publishes a hack commercial novel to help pay for the serious books on its list.
Huston may well be best known to younger people today as an actor, most notably in the role of Noah Cross,in Roman Polanski’s magnificent “Chinatown” (1974). To what extent his own films are still watched outside the film schools is difficult to say. His early ones are in black and white, which unfortunately (and inexplicably) turns off some younger viewers, but it is encouraging to see that almost all his films are on DVD and available to members of Netflix. As one who is old enough to have seen most of his films when they were originally released and who has passionate feelings about the best of them, I recommend them for personal as well as artistic reasons, but recommend them I most certainly do, as I also recommend this fine biography.
Courage and Art
By Jeffrey Meyers
Crown Archetype. 475 pp. $30