At 74, John Huston is much with us, even if his tradition has been left behind.
Larger than Life. The antique image fits him like a theatrical cape, even as a waning century bends to the work of scaling itself down. Risk-taker and maker of movies: ("The African Queen" and 35 others); son of Walter (whom he directed to an Oscar in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"); veteran of the war in the Aleutians and the war in Italy (combat cameraman); survivor of the studio star system (when Monroe and Clift were not); husband (five times); prizefighter (23 wins in 25 bouts); actor ("Chinatown") and practical joker (of which more in a moment).
From the age of 3, when he was placed on stage in an Uncle Sam suit to recite "Yankee Doodle Dandy," to his 1981 project -- directing the movie of the musical "Annie" -- Huston has cut an epic figure, long-boned and high-spirited. Caroming off the walls to stay in the fast lane. There used to be plenty of company on that track, but it's less crowded now.
Larger than life. The tradition worked its chemistry, or alchemy (nobody cared which), and its works were all around him. Hemmingway, Bogart, Monroe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gable, Roosevelt, David O. Selznick. There are no replacements en route, and nobody even calls for them anymore. Huston shrugs.
"It sounds like, looking back, that my world was filed with more flamboyant people -- people larger than life, as you say -- than it does now. You could say that I was attracted to them, that we were all together and more visible. And we were. But, in fact, the world did have more such people then.
"I encounter fewer and fewer adventurers now. Fewer of those who run away from home to do adventuresome things." As Huston did, while still in high school, to become a professional boxer. As Huston did, when by age 21 he had already served two years in the Mexican cavalry.
He's got on a tweedy get-up with Irish-looking leather shoes, and his nose is still broken into a ski jump, and his crossed legs cantilever out of that familiar, long bony frame. The sunlight coming through the window of the Madison Hotel illuminates his white hair, white beard cropped close. He is neither agitated nor bored. Not agitated because he is a citizen of Ireland and a resident of a remote Mexican island, far from the smaller-than-life factors of the day. Not bored because . . . an intelligent man is never bored. The tradition says that.
"We are at a low ebb, though," Huston adds. Carter and Reagan? "It seems to me they're both small-timers, he says. "Reagan is a backwards-looking man -- back near the turn of the century. Carter may be a little better than he gets credit for but he ran out of excuses a while ago." Pause."I guess that today, Anwar Sadat comes the closest to representing the great heart of man."
People used to set out in search of the great hearts. And they didn't have much trouble finding each other, at which point -- in the tradition -- they either embraced or knocked each other down.
If you were John Huston and you designed your own house, incorporating novel ideas of form (i.e., it came out looking like a stable) for the San Fernando Valley, Frank Lloyd Wright might stop by for a look. His silver hair is flowing over his cape, under his Bohemian hat. He wants to know why you made the ceilings so high. Because I'm tall, Huston explains to the master. "Anybody over 5-foot-10 is a weed," Wright replies.
After some success as a screenwriter, Huston is offered his first directing job. The property is something called "The Maltese Falcon," twice filmed already, and twice a flop. He draws as a cast Sydney Greenstreet, making his first movie; Mary Astor; Peter Lorre, and an actor named Humphrey Bogart. After each day's shooting they go off together for drinks, all pals. When the film is finished, the studio doesn't ask for any cuts. All Warner Brothers publicity department wants to do is change the name of the picture to "The Gent From Frisco," but Huston has his way even on that. Nobody knows, when the picture is released, that it is anything more than a pretty good B picture.
Huston joins the Signal Corps, recruited while directing Bogart in "Across the Pacific." A war is definitely in the tradition. He finds himself in the Aleutians, shooting a documentary. He finds himself in a B-24, attacked by Zeros. When his camera winds down, he notices that the waist gunner who has been in his way is no longer in his way. The waist gunner has been killed, and Huston starts shooting the machine gun instead of his camera.
He returns to Los Angeles to edit his film, attends a party at David O. Selznick's house and encounters Errol Flynn in a hallway. Flynn insults a mutual woman friend. In Selznick's garden, they square off. The fight goes on for an hour, Marquis of Queensberry rules. When it is over, the combatants retire to separate hospitals. Flynn has two broken ribs; Huston's nose is broken again.
In San Pietro, in Italy, Huston makes a documentary. In order to get good shots of the first Americans fighting their way in, he and his crew arrive in the town before the Germans leave. Poor planning, but good opportunity. And well within the tradition. It is a day, Huston recalls later, that he saw more dead men than living men.
In Africa in 1951, he takes Katharine Hepburn aside to tell her that her interpretation of Rosie is all wrong for "The African Queen." Just pretend you're Eleanor Roosevelt, Huston says. Hepburn then warms to the part. Bogart, however, hates Africa.
Huston takes the opportunity for big-game hunting. He wants to bag each of the traditional species: elephant, tiger, lion and so on. He carries a Rigby .470 express rifle, rides an elephant. Game is scarce. The camp cook is arrested for murder, and executed. It dawns on Huston what the "long pig" he has been eating at the campfire really was. When in the Ruiki, a tributary of the Congo, do as the Ruikians do. All in the tradition. Unfortunately, this local tradition is of cannibalism.
Also in the tradition: Huston is a little hard to live with. To his third wife, Evelyn Keyes, he brings home a chimpanzee. The chimp is jealous. Evelyn has just had the apartment decorated -- white on white -- in the best of taste. She makes room for the chimp, who wants to sleep with Huston. Huston likes animals a lot. The chimp wrecks the apartment.Pretty soon Huston is not married to Evelyn anymore. They flip a coin to see who gets his pre-Columbian art collection. Evelyn wins. Huston is broke. MGM, being itself part of the tradition, lends him $150,000.
Huston keeps on making movies, collaborating with James Agee, with the mysterious B. Traven, with Truman Capote on the set of "Beat the Devil." It is on this set that Capote and Bogart fall to arm wrestling. It becomes a full-scale wrestling match, and pretty soon Bogart is on his back -- pinned. "Truman's epicene comportment was downright deceptive," Huston writes later.
Huston moves to Ireland and lives there for 15 years. He owns horses whenever he can. He makes love to women whenever he can. He gambles whenever he can, even when he can't afford it. He loses everything one night and gains it all back the next day. Traditional larger-than-life behavior.
It's Huston's idea to commission Jean-Paul Sartre to write the screenplay for "Freud," whom Montgomery Clift is to play on screen. Sartre is an intellectual giant, albeit wall-eyed and unkempt, but his script comes in 300 pages long and impossible to film. Huston has to tell him the script is no good.
On the sets of several movies, he watches Clift fall apart. Clift pounds Clark Gable on the back so hard it hurts.When Gable tells him to knock it off, Clift breaks into tears. Clift is always breaking into tears. The public learns about that much later, but meanwhile Huston has to live and work with it.
He goes through the same thing with Monroe while making "The Misfits." Marilyn gobbles pills, sleeps late and humiliates Arthur Miller. Gable never complains. Huston keeps the movie going. Gable thinks it will be a very good film, but then Gable dies. Not long after, Monroe is gone too. The tradition is sometimes fatal. Huston survies.
The tradition is not just something propagated in the fan magazines and the publicity departments and in the handprints in cement or in Life magazine. It is propageted by the behavior of the people with the great hearts. By Ernest Hemingway.
At first he and Huston don't get along. Hemingway seems distant, suspicious, and he wants to put the gloves on. He thinks Huston is a little skinny for his height. But Mary says to Huston, don't fight him, he's not himself. He's ill. Hemingway is at work on "Across the River and Into the Trees," and Huston figures out what's wrong. Hemingway is like an actor living a part. His character is at the end of his rope, and so must be the author. It all makes sense. Later they becamepals.
Hemingway dies by his own hand. But Huston is living the tradition, not trying to immortalize it. He remains. To the onlookers, he grows still Larger than Life.
Huston doesn't mind writing about himself, he said yesterday. In fact, as these tidbits suggest, his autobiograph is just out. But he tries of talking about it all. That part of the tradition -- reticence -- is more honored in the breach than in the practice.
"i'm just not that infatuated with myself," he said. "i don't think I was ever really self-conscious about what I did. And I'm not having a secret affair with myself now." That helped him survive: that and the jokes.
"we always had them. Practical jokes aren't popular today, it's true. But my father always had them going, and they went for years. Lloyd Davis and my father, whenever a third person was present, would suddenly start discussing a Crovney. They'd look at a piece of furniture and say, Is that a real Crovney? No, fake. If a duck flew overhead, one would say, Look, I believe that's a Crovney. By George, a true Crovney. Nobody knew what a Crovney was but them, and it sustained them."
When Huston's Uncle Alec was very sick, an unpopular cousin came to visit. Alec Huston insisted she be told he was already dead. The family protested this macabre gag, but Alec insisted. While the grieving relative looked on in tears, Alec held his breath. When she left he broke into a grin. A few days later, he died.
Huston, throughout his career, also pushed humor to the limits. His biggest collaborator in such high jinks was a jockey named Billy Pearson, who once ruined an elaborate movie scene with a lascivious remark to Ava Gardner, and who, in cahoots with Huston, once intentionally fouled 12 competing riders in a Paris horse race, and who with Huston once dropped 2,000 Ping-Pong balls onto a golf course, successfully postponing a tournament match in which Burt Lancaster was entered.
"you couldn't possibly find a golf ball," said Huston, who doesn't think much of golf. "boy, were they mad. But the best story is what we did to an actor named Mark L., a couple of us. Mark was rather vain for a man distinguished by extreme ugliness, and he was going bald, too. We tipped him to a special hair tonic, invented by accident and not yet on the market. We obtained for him a jar of this substance, which was in reality axle grease. w
"the secret was, you didn't put it on your head. Hair loss was glandular.You should apply this stuff every day to your glands. He did -- every day for two months. We asked, how's it working? It works! he would say, and show us a few hairs on his head. The power of positive thinking, you see.
"after a while we had a scientist call to apologize. Yes, the substance had been proved effective, but unfortunately at the expense of manhood. The power of positive thinking again. Mark tested the new information on his wife. Then he tested it elsewhere. Sure enough, the scientist had turned out right again."
Practical jokes are a little cruel, a touch brutal and always at someone else's expense. They are distinctly out of vogue nowadays. Huston is unapologetic. One thing about a pratical joke: once committed, there's nowhere to hide.You know the victim -- when he figures out what's happened -- will be on your own trail. An eye for an eye.
Maybe that was the point in the old tradition. You wound up, if things went right, with a broken nose and no place to hide. In the dead of night, you might try to explain. But never apologize. It was part of the tradition. Part of the collision of great hearts. Part of being Larger than Life.
Huston never did get his broken nose fixed, even though nose jobs were as common as nose dives in most Hollywood careers.
"you understand, don't you?" he said. "it would merely have been broken again."