Thursday, October 20, 2011

John Huston: Courage and Art by Jeffrey Meyers

John Huston: Courage and Art
by Jeffrey Meyers
9780307590671 Hardcover
Crown Archetype - Random House
September 2011
496 pages

John Huston was an admirer of high art but he didn't think film fit into that category. He thought film was just another way to showcase the art he admired. Huston had a great admiration for novels, plays, paintings and sculptures and for the people who had the talent to create them.  When John Huston was 11 years old, he was misdiagnosed with an enlarged heart and chronic nephritis. He was forced to be bedridden for 2 years, not allowed any form of exercise and given a bland diet. Gone crazy from being shut up for so long, he escaped his home one evening and went for a swim. He almost drowned but miraculously survived. Huston came out of that experience traumatized but driven to be an adventurer and to be constantly on the move. He was determined never to be lonely or bored ever again.

John Huston: Courage and Art is by far one of the best books I've read this year. It's one of the best biographies I've ever read. When I started the book, I thought that I didn't have much interest in John Huston. Why was I reading this again? However, it only took about 20 pages to make me realize that not only is Huston a fascinating figure, his life story is being told by a very talented and thoughtful researcher and writer.

The book starts off with a strange prologue depicting the friendship between John Huston and Ernest Hemingway. Meyers goes on to chronicle the life of Huston from the very beginning to the bitter end. The book is structured chronologically and each chapter is devoted to a particular span of years in Huston's life. You can tell there is not much information about Huston's early years because we quickly move on to him as an adult. But Meyers was able to provide us with valuable information about those early formative years and helps understand why Huston was the way he was.

Meyers did years of research and interviewed as many people as he could including Jacqueline Bisset, Susannah York and Huston's wives/lovers Zoe Sallis, Eloise Hardt, Celeste Huston and Anna van der Heide. He also corresponded and/or interviewed Huston's children including Anjelica Huston, Danny Huston and Allegra Huston. He also pored over the extensive notes from the collection of Huston papers. The result is a very well-researched and thorough biography. There are a lot of facts but you are never overwhelmed as they are presented clearly. The writing style is approachable and easy to follow without any dumbing down. At the beginning of the book Meyers warns "rather than moralizing about Huston's conduct, I would urge readers to take pleasure in his impressive achievements."

I learned a lot about John Huston. His directorial debut was none other than The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the greatest and most respected classic films of all times. Talk about starting off with a bang! He wasn't just a director. He was also a writer and director. He co-wrote the screenplay for good friend Humphrey Bogart's break out film High Sierra (1941). Huston credited himself for getting away with having a female character living with two unmarried men in the story even after the Production Code team came back with 27 pages of corrections for the film. Huston was one of the few people who didn't put up with Jack Warner's machinations and even told him off when Warner tried to chastise him for arriving late to set. Huston never lost his temper but was still tough on his actors. He expected a lot of out them and would use sarcasm to demonstrate his disapproval. Huston was also a big jokester and loved to pull pranks on his actors and fellow writers and producers.  I very much enjoyed reading about the filming of Key Largo (1948), Beat the Devil (1953)Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)The Misfits (1961), and  Freud (1962).

Because Huston admired art so much many of his films are adaptations of great pieces of literature including novels and plays. He remained as faithful as he could to the original art. Sometimes this proved to be a good thing and sometimes it meant the demise of the film. Huston didn't believe in fancy camera shots. He once said, "in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing."While he tried to stay as true as possible to his vision, the Production Code more often than not got in the way. A perfect example of this is the noir The Asphalt Jungle. Meyers credits Huston for being able to create "a strikingly innovative film despite the moralistic Production Code, which drained a lot of originality and interest from the eccentric cast of characters." Huston had a love for nature and animals and gravitated towards stories that included natural settings and fauna. He wasn't the most savvy of business men and was often swindled out of money. Making The African Queen cost $4 million and it went on to make 10 times that at the box office. Huston made virtually no profit because he swindled by producer Sam Spiegel.

(Walter and John Huston)

The book focuses a lot on Huston's film career devoting several pages to most of the major films and at least a couple paragraphs to the lesser ones. If when reading this you stumble upon a film of Huston's you haven't seen, I would suggest reading the first few sentences and then skimming the rest. There are major spoilers for each. The rest of the book focuses on Huston's family life including his famous dad actor Walter Huston, his mother, his five wives and his children. Huston had many many lovers. So many it's virtually impossible to count them. He enjoyed the company of women but tired of them quickly. This most likely stems from his determination never to be lonely or bored. Whenever he got bored, instead of being alone he moved on to someone else. Meyers exploration of Huston's love life is never salacious. It's more factual and it fits into the overall picture of Huston's life as a whole.

John Huston was a complicated man who lived a very full life. He left behind some famous children, incredibly valuable pieces of artwork (some of which were stolen) and a legacy of films. If you have enjoyed any of Huston's films, I encourage you to read this book!

Fun Facts:

~ Living in Ireland was cheap so Huston had is own Xanadu, a mansion filled with artwork from all over the world
~ to buy Monet's Red Water Lilies, the cashless Huston gambled at a local casino to acquire the funds for the purchase.
~ in lieu of being paid to act in Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (1963), he accepted two Jack Yeats paintings instead.
~ Huston insisted on filming in sequence whenever he could.
~ he had a great love affair with Olivia de Havilland
~ he was traumatized both by WWII as well as the HUAC investigations
~ Louis B. Mayer didn't like the Asphalt Jungle even though it was a great financial success
~ Audie Murphy was saved by Huston's lover Inge Morath. He fell off a boat and was drowning. She swam to his rescue and had him hold onto her bra straps as she pulled him out.
~ on the set of Beat the Devil (1953), Truman Capote beat Humphrey Bogart at "several arm-wrestling contests at $50 a throw"
~ Huston hated chicken

Thank you to Crown Archetype/Random House for sending me this book to review!


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. I've always been intrigued by the Huston family. I'm a big Walter Huston fan (completely underrated, btw). I've always thought it quite amazing that John's first endeavor as a director was The Maltese Falcon . A true visionary.

    Great review.

  2. Great review and a nifty widget, Raquelle! I need to own this title eventually. I see the photo of John with father, Walter, is there much on Walter Huston in the book? I'd honestly prefer a Walter biography, but I'm sure John will reach a wider audience!

  3. Kittenbiscuits & Cliff - Walter Huston is talked about in the book but it's limited because

    1) the book continues to 1987, the year of John's death and Walter died in 1950.
    2) Walter divorced John's mother in 1909 when John was around 3 years old. Walter didn't raise John and although they stayed close, travel and acting/directing kept them apart a lot.

    I wonder if in the 10 years of research the author did for this book if he encountered enough Walter Huston information to do a biography on him (with additional research perhaps).

  4. I've always been a big fan of John Huston, so this definitely sounds like a book I would want to read. Indeed, beyond loving his films, I always thought Huston was a fascinating character. BTW, I really like the widget!

  5. I'm a huge Huston fan and find that films like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Asphalt Jungle, Man who would Be King feel like real men's movies, but are revelations too about men's souls in a way that a typical man's movie isn't... Eager to check this book out; does it talk much about what could be his last great acting job -- The other side of the wind?


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