Over the course of his career, spanning half a century, John Huston made a contribution to American cinema that’s difficult to overstate. As an accomplished actor, screenwriter and director, he was a cinematic triple threat, and navigated the transitions from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood and beyond with an adventurous spirit and uncompromising attitude, in his lifetime earning just about every accolade out there, including plenty of attention from the Academy. From the success of his directorial debut, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, which scored him an Oscar nomination right out of the gate, to his penultimate film, 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor, giving him the distinction of being the oldest person ever to be nominated for the Best Director award, he was in the running an impressive 15 times in various categories, taking home (only) two well-deserved statues for his 1948 classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Still, as impressive as that body of work is, he’s equally remembered for his personal life, which was vastly more colorful than anything he ever brought to the silver screen.
“John Huston would be worth a biography even if he’d never made a film,” observed Jeffrey Meyers at the outset of his 2011 chronicle of the filmmaker’s career, John Huston: Courage and Art, and in learning about the man, it’s difficult not to become as fascinated by his tumultuous, idiosyncratic life as his inspired work. Born on August 5th 1905, Huston was named after his paternal grandfather, an extravagant drunk and gambler, and raised, for a time, by his father, Walter, a restless, at times incompetent man who could seldom hold down a job and dreamed of acting, and his mother, Rhea, a tough woman who worked as a reporter when she could. The family moved a lot on account of Walter’s shiftless nature and theatrical ambitions, and that didn’t change when he deserted his wife and child completely, leaving Rhea to continually hit the road in search of employment. “When I was a kid I never had a home,” remembered Huston, “I was always on the move, living out of dressing rooms and hotels.”
Though she often struggled to provide for him, Rhea was a doting mother, which to John’s chagrin only intensified when, at the age of twelve, he was diagnosed (likely misdiagnosed) with an enlarged heart as well as a kidney disorder called chronic nephritis, and put on indefinite bed rest. A willful boy, he ignored the doctor’s dire warnings of impending death and eventually proved to his mother he was on the mend, but the nearly two years he spent as an invalid had only increased his desire to meet life head on, to conquer his fears and push his limits. Through his teenage years and into adulthood, he took on a variety of challenges, becoming an amateur boxer, a journalist and even an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry among other misadventures. It was his experience with writing that provided his entry into the world of film, securing Huston a job as script editor at Samuel Goldwyn Productions and later Universal Studios, from which he graduated to screenwriter and sometimes actor, working on early talkies.
He quickly developed a reputation in the industry for being, as the New York Times’ Peter B. Flint put it, “a lusty, hard-drinking libertine”, one that never really left him, but grew more nuanced with time. To be sure, there are anecdotes galore to paint him as a tough-guy and fearless eccentric, from when he and Errol Flynn got in a knock-down, drag-out brawl over a woman, one that ended with both being carted off to the hospital, to the time his third wife, the actress Evelyn Keyes, became so fed up with the antics of his pet monkey that she gave him an ultimatum, at which point Huston promptly chose the fucking monkey, but many, like his daughter Angelica Huston, recall his gentle, thoughtful side. “I’ve heard my father described as a Lothario, a drinker, a gambler, a man’s man, more interested in killing big game than in making movies,” she wrote, “It is true that he was extravagant and opinionated. But Dad was complicated, self-educated for the most part, inquisitive, and well read.”
Angelica, who won an Oscar for her performance in Prizzi’s Honor, tempers sweet memories of her father, like the Christmas he had his friend John Steinbeck serve as Santa Claus, with the pain of him forever jetting off to some far-flung locale, either to work or simply in pursuit of adventure. Like his father, whom he eventually reconnected with and even directed in an Oscar-winning performance, Huston was a wanderer, the closest thing to a permanent home being his isolated compound in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he reflected, sometimes about the path not taken. “I’m content having arrived at this moment in eternity, but for the life of me I don’t know how I got here…,” he wrote in his 1978 autobiography, An Open Book, “I’ve lived a number of lives. I’m inclined to envy the man who leads one life, with one job, and one wife, in one country, under one God. It may not be a very exciting existence, but at least by the time he’s seventy-three he knows how old he is.”