The man who filmed the stuff that dreams are made of.
Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
And of course, there were the women. When does a man who is catnip to women cease being a charming rascal and qualify as a scoundrel? When he treats his wives, mistresses, and casual flings the way Huston did—as though they deserved his contempt for having fallen for him. Almost from the start of his first marriage to Dorothy Harvey, his high school sweetheart and a philosophy student in college who intended to become a poet, tarty actresses rumpled his bedsheets on a regular basis. “There were so many pretty girls,” Huston recalled. “It was completely inconsequential, never serious—until Dorothy entered a room at the wrong moment.” Dorothy proceeded to drink herself into oblivion. They divorced and he accepted responsibility for the damage done. After his second wife, Lesley Black, delivered a stillborn girl, she was unable to conceive again and became deeply depressed. Huston’s affairs with Mary Astor and Olivia de Havilland, who starred in his movies, propelled her into a complete breakdown.
He married his third wife, the actress Evelyn Keyes, on the rebound from Marietta FitzGerald, the love of his life, a woman of grace, refinement, and Brahmin bloodlines who adored Huston but knew better than to marry him. Evelyn, for her part, was a luscious ex-chorus girl who proposed to Huston soon after they started seeing each other. Her gaucherie rubbed Huston raw, however, and his public humiliation of her served as heartless entertainment. Huston’s pet chimpanzee that smashed Evelyn’s perfume bottles and defecated in her dresser drawers spelled the end. Evelyn announced that it was her or the chimp, and Huston went for the chimp.
A prospective replacement bride already awaited: Ricki Soma, a former Balanchine student and cover girl, 23 years younger than Huston and barely 20 years old when they began their adultery. He married her in 1950, their son Tony (who would cowrite the screenplay for The Dead with his father) was born two months later, and his daughter Anjelica (who would star in Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead) was born the next year. Marital boredom arrived with paternity: Neither Ricki nor his growing children counted for much with Huston—though like Walter with him, he would show an interest in his children once they were old enough to be interesting. The usual run of available lovelies kept him whirling. He fathered another son, Danny, by one of them; Ricki countered by having a daughter with the (married) English peer and historian John Julius Norwich. In 1969, when Huston got word that Ricki had been killed in a car crash, he paused for a tearless moment, and then said, “Well, we’d better have our lunch.”
The woman Huston married in 1972, Celeste Shane, was a Beverly Hills knockout exactly half his age. Some of Huston’s closest friends couldn’t understand what he saw in her; they were offended by her coarseness. But what he saw, as he told Danny’s mother, was incomparable skill in the sack.
“Rather than moralizing about Huston’s conduct,” Jeffrey Meyers advises, “I would urge readers to take pleasure in his impressive achievements.” In fact, however, Meyers’s own distaste for Huston’s sexual conduct tinges this biography. And Huston himself knew that he had failed the women he claimed to love, and had failed them all the same way. The achievement is impressive for all that, as Meyers says: “The intensely productive Huston probably made more great films than any other director,” outdoing his contemporaries Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and David Lean. Meyers rates eight as masterpieces—The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1961), Fat City (1972), Under the Volcano (1984), and The Dead (1987)—and I would add The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
Huston’s heroes tend to want more than they have any chance of getting, or of keeping once they have it. If they come through their ordeal alive, sad resignation is the best they are left with. (The African Queen, in which Humphrey Bogart not only kills Germans but gets the girl, is a happy exception.) Huston’s work also exhibits a clockwork artistry that has passed out of style. Apparently slight touches in his films delineate the emotional landscape of the entire picture. Early in The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade’s partner is murdered, and a police detective, trying to be decent to Spade, says, “I guess he had some good qualities.” When Spade (who had been sleeping with his partner’s wife) replies, “I guess so,” the nearly affectless tone suggests the brutal carelessness that rules this amoral world. Yet in Spade’s demeanor there is a shading of regret that a man should have to build up such a callus in order to protect himself from his own feelings.
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the camera cuts back and forth and lights up the faces of two prospectors ablaze with avarice as the third partner (Walter Huston), who studies them impassively, measures out the daily take from their gold mine. Later, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) will shoot his partner Curtin and, thinking he has killed him, stare into his campfire as into the flames of hell. Mexican bandits corner Dobbs, and one repeatedly lifts his trouser leg to check out his boots. The bandit’s greed has a feral lewdness, and after the bandits murder Dobbs, two of them fight for his boots. The gold is there for the grabbing, but the bandits mistake it for dust and the wind scatters it.
The opening shot of The Dead—Huston’s final film, based on James Joyce’s supreme short story—shows snow falling at night and shadows moving behind thin curtains; the dim grayish forms will prove to be dancers at a party, and from the start they evoke the ghostliness of the visible world. Joyous feasting, compulsive drinking, faces rapt or bored at a poetic recitation, the dance that goes on and on while those too old to join sit apart, a husband’s discovery that before his wife ever met him she loved a boy who died for her at 17: “One by one we’re all becoming shades.”
Among Hollywood filmmakers, Huston was about the best at what he did. Yet he understood that even his was a middling talent practicing a lesser, derivative art. As Meyers puts 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.”
But Meyers gets the great theme of Huston’s films exactly right: “t he tremendous struggle to achieve the impossible and the loss of the goal at the moment of triumph.” Perhaps this theme attracted Huston because he had turned aside from determined struggle and chosen easier success with its alluring perquisites.
In his memoir, Huston tells of taking a ditzy babe to dinner at “21” during World War II and being seated next to the table of H. L. Mencken, “just about the greatest man of our time.” Overcoming his shyness, Huston introduced himself and Mencken glowingly remembered his stories in the American Mercury some 15 years before. To turn out screenplays and direct films would be all right for some people, Mencken told him, but not for a writer of Huston’s abilities: “You were meant to be a serious writer.” When the conversation was over, Huston’s date asked him who the man was, and Huston told her the “greatest man’s” name. “Who’s he?” she said.
John Huston braved enemy fire and tiger charges and elephant stampedes. He made terrific movies. But the moral courage required for true excellence in life and art? That he lacked, and he knew it, and maybe in the end he was the one to suffer most for it.
Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.