John Huston: Courage and Art
- Jeffrey Meyers
- Crown Archetype
- 463 pp.
- October 24, 2011
A noted biographer examines the two sides of the legendary producer who was “a Renaissance man” and bigger than life.
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
John Huston (1906-1987), formidable in every way, directed 40 movies in 46 years, providing or collaborating on screenplays for nearly all and acting in some. A careful apprenticeship in Hollywood helped make his first full directorial effort, The Maltese Falcon (1941), his most admired work, exacting in every detail. Great movies followed, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), whose cast includes Huston’s father, the admired and generous character actor Walter Huston; three harrowing World War II documentaries (1943-46); The Asphalt Jungle (1950); and The Misfits (1961). Huston made his share of mediocre films and a few poor ones, yet he rounded off his oeuvre with three of his very best: Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and, especially dear to cineastes, The Dead (1987).
Huston, to quote one source in Jeffrey Meyers’ new biography, John Houston: Courage and Art, “was a Renaissance man, and everything he did was bigger than life.” A high school dropout at 15, he originally wanted to be a painter and continued to paint into his final years. He was also a voracious reader, with a taste for fine writing that led to his selecting, as scriptwriting collaborators, literary prestige: James Agee, Ray Bradbury, Jean-Paul Sartre, Christopher Fry, Christopher Isherwood and Carson McCullers. Producer Ray Stark called Huston “the best read and the most knowledgeable man I’ve ever met, or that’s ever been connected with the film industry.”
A big man physically, with no sense of personal danger and a frightening disconnect between intelligence and feeling, he wanted to possess the world, and good luck to anyone who obstructed him. In exhibiting his infamous cruel streak — Humphrey Bogart, his best friend, affectionately nicknamed him “Monster” — Huston leaves one gasping for comparisons.
Meyers should know. A veteran author of 22 biographies on writers, painters and movie stars, as well as of 10 volumes of criticism on literary subjects, he has no qualms about slogging through the mire of any life to whom he has devoted a book. For Huston, Meyers donned hip boots, tracking down the details of the director’s awful practical jokes at his actors’ expense, his homophobia, his damaging inability to form exclusive emotional attachments to women, his delight in locating the shoots of his movies in inhospitable terrains. The list goes on.
The cruelest passage in the book concerns the punishment Huston meted out to his much-longed-for first-born, when the 8-year-old didn’t clean the sty of his pet piglet. Huston had the piglet removed and turned into bacon. When Meyers compares the fall into eternal disgrace of Milton’s Satan to the 75-foot leap into a ravine by a stuntman whose life Huston risked for a fee of $10,000 during the making of The Man Who Would Be King (1975), unquestionably the underlying comparison is with the director.
The most important comparison for Meyers, though, is not with Satan but with another larger-than-life adventurer and a friend, Ernest Hemingway; his storytelling inspired Huston, but for one reason or another, the director never completed a movie based on a Hemingway story. John Huston: Courage and Art begins with a long prologue comparing the two, as if it’s going to be a double biography. Its opening sentence quotes critic Andrew Sarris characterizing Huston as “a Hemingway character lost in a Dostoyevsky novel.” From there on, Meyers sets up Hemingway as a touchstone for comprehending or contrasting Huston’s wanderlust, his esteem for life-threatening physical challenges and willingness to put himself in harm’s way during war, his insatiable thirst for hard liquor, his obsession with making adversaries of huge and dangerous wild animals, which he then killed or sought to, and his astounding sexual appetite for dozens of increasingly younger women.
He married five, but it’s difficult to figure out what marriage meant to a self-described polygamist, apart from the idea of wife as chief housekeeper of his lavishly furnished mansion and its many art treasures. It didn’t mean establishing a family, for that he could do without marriage: Two of his three children were born to one legal wife, a third child to a woman he didn’t marry but generously supported, along with their son. Meyers speaks of at least one “unidentified woman” who was also pregnant by Huston. Certainly, marriage for Huston didn’t mean exclusive companionship or even the long-term bonding that Huston sustained with close male friends. Wives came and went, while Huston’s secretaries (who were also live-in lovers and, in the case of Gladys Hill, a scriptwriter for some of Huston’s movies) remained parts of the permanent furnishings; from time to time, the house was embellished as well with long-term and short-term mistresses.
To some extent, Huston’s marriages seem another aspect of his inclination to gamble. He could part with $10,000 in a night of poker, or several times that by way of alimony. Easy come, easy go was his attitude toward money and, with a few exceptions, love. And yet, Huston was a man of principle: prominent defender of the First Amendment during the HUAC witch hunts and Hollywood blacklistings, champion of the literary integrity of the books on which most of his movies were based. He wouldn’t poach on the wives and lovers of his friends and colleagues. At one point, Meyers painstakingly explains why Huston didn’t sleep with a bevy of famous actresses around him: This one was married to a friend, that one the girlfriend of Huston’s producer, etc., etc.
When Huston died, after suffering so badly from emphysema for 20 years that he was essentially married to a huge oxygen tank, his private papers and most of his art collection were stolen, destroyed or disappeared, owing to a combination of bad luck, his children’s indifference and the disorganization of Huston’s last live-in lover. For the most part, what he passed along to the world, apart from his children and films, are memories. Many are quite mixed, some deeply admiring. Huston was capable of jaw-dropping kindness, both on his movie sets — as Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner attested — and off. For example, he flew the bedridden Carson McCullers to his estate in Ireland, arranging every comfort, visiting her bedroom for long literary discussions and gossip, elevating her morale and most likely prolonging her life, however briefly. At the end of his life, taking stock of his failures as a parent, he attempted to become one, or something like one. Huston’s last words were to his younger son, who was trying to get his footing as a director: “Knock ’em dead, Danny.”
Meyers isn’t a writer you want students to study at the sentence level. He apparently never met a pun he could resist. He insists on editorializing in stage whispers, and he has something of a tin ear. However, his organization of his material makes it easy for readers to absorb, his film analyses and interpretations are serious, and his storytelling is suspenseful.
Meyers has tried to rise to the level of a filmmaker he clearly adores. He analyzes Huston’s major themes, which he describes as “alcoholism ... betrayal ... the quest for self-sacrifice, absolution and redemption after a morally reprehensible act and the loss of personal self-esteem ... the almost impossible quest, tempered by detachment and irony.” He dissects production and post-production processes in an effort to discover why all of Huston’s pictures aren’t masterpieces. He lists the art historical references in Huston’s films. (At the end of Huston’s life, his daughter, actress Angelica, “got special permission to push the wheelchair-bound invalid through the Metropolitan Museum of Art after closing hours for a final gaze at his beloved masterpieces.”) Meyers also identifies Huston’s “most memorable characters and scenes” and triages his movies, so disparate in subjects and locations, into a film buff’s “Masterpieces,” “Winners,” “Worth Seeing” and “Duds,” knowing that, where movies are concerned, everyone’s a critic.
The author has earned these lists. His biography examines Huston’s career — often he displays his sharpest insights on the “Duds” — in depth yet without pedantry, exploring why this picture scored and that one succeeded only partly or not at all. And his skill at weaving together the life and the work, so that the polymath and the polygamist, the cold father whose criticisms stifle and the non-interfering director who liberates actors, seem more closely related than two sides of the same coin, the same entity viewed through two different lenses. For families and friends of great artists, the implications are chilling, but the biographer’s feat is amazing.
Mindy Aloff, a member of WIRoB’s editorial board, is an adjunct associate professor of dance at Barnard College. She is the editor of Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World by Agnes de Mille and the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation.