The Magazine

Huston Chronicle

The man who filmed the stuff that dreams are made of.

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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John Huston (1906-1987) had the talent and the courage to live as he pleased. Who would not wish to be able to say the same for himself? Who does not feel diminished beside someone who has done as much? Yet one can live as he pleases and still fall well short of the life he might have lived if he had demanded the very best of his talent and courage. In his milieu, where success means winning some of the world’s most coveted prizes, Huston was a monumental figure: perhaps the greatest film director to come out of Hollywood. And he enjoyed the virile roistering natural to a man of his temperament, and which fame, wealth, power, and the superabundance of willing beauties in the movie business made virtually compulsory, and on a titanic scale.

Movie still from The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941)

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Isn’t this the role an ordinary man would imagine for himself if only he could be born again in a bold and gifted incarnation? It sure sounds sweet to have been John Huston. Was it really as sweet as it sounds? This vivid and rousing new biography by the ceaselessly prolific Jeffrey Meyers raises the question of whether the enviable and the admirable are two different things.

John Marcellus Huston, the only child of Walter Huston and his wife Rhea, was born in the small town of Nevada, Missouri. The family settled in Texas soon afterward, but not for long. Walter itched to resume his premarital life as an itinerant actor and Rhea stormed out for good after four years of marriage to the man she considered an utter failure. For years Walter Huston was a failure, marrying again and forming a vaudeville act with a crass and pretentious woman whom he would divorce. But then success as a serious stage actor, friendships with Eugene O’Neill and Sinclair Lewis, and steady work in the new talking pictures changed his life. After years of wandering from one newspaper job to another, Rhea too struck it rich, marrying a vice president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The stodginess of the high life in St. Paul, Minnesota, bored her, however, and she left her second husband two years later.

John hardly saw his father until he turned 18. He adored his mother one moment yet could barely stand her the next. In his 1980 autobiography he remembered her as “dominating, demeaning, hysterical, overbearing, proud, protective. She was an adventuress, a gambler, a horsewoman, hardened by convent training, embittered by an alcoholic father, unlucky in love, frustrated in her dream of being more than a sob-sister feature writer for newspapers.” Jeffrey Meyers observes, “John never experienced a normal family life and had no stability as a child.” The biographer does not hammer the point home, but it is clear that the disorderly roving Huston knew as a boy he would duplicate as a man.

Doctors erroneously pronounced a death sentence on the boy when he was 11: The diagnosis was an enlarged heart and failing kidneys, and the prescription (which would only delay slightly the inevitable early end) was a starvation diet, complete bed rest, and a move from Minnesota to Arizona. Two years of this desperate regimen proved more than he could tolerate: John slipped out of the house one night and dove into a nearby canal, where the current pouring through open floodgates sucked him under and nearly finished him off. Survival was so exhilarating he would go back for more and more.

This daredevil hydrotherapy helped cure whatever ailed him. His heart and kidneys would be fine the rest of his life, and the thrill of danger became a driving force. The boredom he suffered as an invalid would always haunt him, and perpetual excitement in heavy dosage was the only known antidote: “The trouble with me is that I am forever and eternally bored. .  .  . If I’m threatened with boredom, why I’ll run like a hare.”

School bored him. Although he would rate, in Hollywood, as an intellectual, he dropped out of high school at 15; as Meyers notes, his formal education roughly equaled Marilyn Monroe’s, but he would read three or four books a week all his life. Boxing excited him. He took it up to recover his strength after the ordeal of doing nothing, and developed into a crackerjack amateur, going 23-2 and winning the California lightweight belt with no worse than a broken nose to show for it. Drawing and painting excited him even more. He honed a real talent and aspired to be remarkable.

Invited to New York by his father in 1924, John tried on Greenwich Village for size, and liked the rough-and-tumble combination of art and sport that no place else could rival. Acting swam in the blood, and there was no harm in trying: Cape Cod’s Provincetown Playhouse, where O’Neill was the reigning master, became the site of Huston’s stage debut in a dreary one-act based on a Sherwood Anderson short story.