John Huston: Courage and Art
(Crown Archetype, 475 pages, $30)
By Jeffrey Meyers
The nearest directorial equivalent we have to Ernest Hemingway, John Huston led 20 lives in one, each as rich and chaotic as the last, and attacked life with a zeal that impressed, delighted, unnerved, and appalled his friends, lovers, wives, children, co-workers, and peers in equal measure. Such an epic life inevitably provokes a Rashomon-like divergence of opinions from its witnesses, ranging from genius and true artist to monster and paragon of selfishness. A complicated man, then, but also a great character, and according to Jeffrey Meyers’ fine biography, a fictionalized version of Huston appears in no less than nine novels.
Meyers’ portrait, admirably compact even at 475 pages, is teeming with detail, gossip, anecdote, and memories, both fond and not so fond. (Though it’s not quite the first Huston bio, as its publisher claims, it’s easily the most thorough.) The son of actor Walter Huston, John was cosseted by an overbearing mother and confined to his bed for two years during puberty after being misdiagnosed with ailments he didn’t have. Despite his eventual good health, “he retained the psychic wound” from this experience and, to Meyers’ mind, the bookish amateur painter and horseman spent the remainder of his days vigorously attacking life in search of experiences as grand and dangerous as possible: sport fishing, big-game hunting, riding to hounds, documenting warring armies in WWII, fistfighting with Errol Flynn and many others, and, ah yes, moviemaking.
And he made some great movies, the best of which—The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, The Man Who Would Be King, The Dead—remain evergreen today and likely forever. On set Huston was, say many witnesses, the best of himself: considerate, intimate, and sympathetic with his actors (perhaps less so with actresses), and committed to an open, collaborative atmosphere. A hands-off director who nonetheless exerted total control over every stage of the process from writing to editing, Huston considered casting the most important part of filmmaking after writing. Get those two right, he said, and everything falls into place. He stayed 25 feet from his performers, often with his back to them during shooting (he heeded their vocal timbres), and largely limited himself to advice on tweaking or fine-tuning a performance. Far-flung locations kept the studios out of his hair, and like John Ford he edited in the camera when he could, to limit editorial interference. Huston’s work speaks for itself, but the life is the real meat here: the wives and lovers, the many children, his Zelig-like ubiquity, the many houses and pieds-à-terre, the lavish spending and the perpetual indebtedness that motivated so many of his lesser projects, and always, the ambition to live life at a hundred miles an hour.
Review by John Patterson