It is intriguing to contemplate the nature of John Houseman's appeal. $1For many years a producer of distinguished, innovative theater and film, he is now a familiar face to the public as an actor in movies and television. How is he perceived? As a sweet old man -- a kind of latter-day Edmund Gween? Hardly. To think of John Houseman got up as Santa Claus is to indugle in surrealism.
No, if you were asked to single out the quality he projects, it would be -- would have to be -- intelligence. Kingsfield, the contracts law professor of "The Paper Chase," was intelligence personified, and in spite of the fact that it was Houseman's first on-camera role, you might say that he was typecast.
As evidence, there is this volume of his memoirs, "Front and Center," which picks up and continues the fascinating life-story begun earlier in "Run-Through." It is not just a recap of events and experiences, a record of people known and achievements notched up during the years 1942 to 1955 which are covered here. There is a good deal of that, of course, but there is also something more -- a concerted, rational effort to make sense of the life he led during this period. He stops frequently and, in some of the book's best passages, steps back and takes stock of himself. He analyzes his own behavior and motives with an objectivity that is sometimes almost ruthless. He exposes his vanities. He makes a theme of his continuing dissatisfaction with what he regards as his prolonged adolescence. In fact, as he will have it, "Front and Center" might be viewed as a record of one man's painful struggle toward adulthood.
All of which makes his achievements as an "adolescent" even more remarkable. We had learned in "Run-Through" of Houseman's cosmopolitan origins: born Jacques Hausmann in Romania, brought up in France and schooled in England, he had gone through one unsuccessful career as an international grain merchant before teaming up with Orson Welles to found the Mercury Theatre. After many successes in New York, he went west at Welles' invitation to help on "Citizen Kane."
Perhaps because of his identification with Welles and the left-wing theater of the '30s, John Houseman came ever after to be regarded with suspicion. When, for example, as "Front and Center" begins, Houseman is appointed to organize the Office of War Information's overseas radio service (in spite of the fact that as a not-yet-naturalized American citizen, he was technically an enemy alien), he soon finds himself the target of attacks from teh right and lasts in the job only about a year.
Generally, he was regarded as not only too liberal (the Hollywood witch hunt was then just getting under way), but also as too damned intellectual.
Eventually, this reputation made it possible for him to do the Brando-Mason-Gielgud "Julius Caesar" at M.G.M., certainly the best American Shakespeare film (admittedly not much competition) and a successful production generally. Still, it could have been better -- and perhaps would have been -- had Houseman himself rather than Joseph Mankiewicz directed it.
But he hung back from the more creative role, resigned to run things at a remove as a producer. Why? At one point he interrupts his account of the making of "Julius Caesar," and in a brust of self-analysis remarks, "My vague dreams of power and my perpetual self-doubts had become so closely involved with the anxieties of my work that it was impossible to separate them." He is no more specific than that -- in this case, uncharacteristically reticent regarding those self-doubts.