Icons / September 2016

The Director's Cut: John Huston

John Huston — director, screenwriter, ‘compulsive satyr’ — was a legend in his own picaresque lifetime, as much for his high jinks away from the camera as for his achievements…
Photo by Everett/REX Shutterstock.

Most artists create in their own image, but not like John Huston. Everything about this director, down to his name, could have come from a character from one of his films. Real life has even less in common with his tall tales of men tested on adventures through jungles either tropical or asphalt. But, like Homer’s ancient heroes or Shakespeare’s kings and queens, they ring on down the ages as life writ large. For Huston, they were simply life.

The stories are legion. There was the time he was vacationing with his pal Billy Pearson, a jockey turned art collector, and took a fancy to a Monet they found in a gallery. Not having the cash on him, he went to a casino and promptly turned a borrowed $1,000 into half a million. Which he then, just as promptly, lost — save for $10,000, the price of the Monet. Or there was the occasion when, filming The Unforgiven, his 1960 western, he took against the interference of lead actor Burt Lancaster. Finding that his nemesis was playing golf nearby, he hired a plane and dropped a downpour of ping- pong balls scrawled with insults such as ‘Burt Lancaster sucks’ so that the game had to be called off.

Or there was the night on the set of 1953’s Beat the Devil, a chaotic production located on Italy’s Amalfi coast where the nightly parties were so bacchanalian that Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman flew out to join the fun. Huston celebrated one day’s shooting by walking off a cliff and falling 40 feet, his life saved only by the anaesthetisingly high level of alcohol in his blood. Most notorious was his behaviour on the set of The African Queen, the Oscar-winning romance set deep in the Congo. His daughter, Anjelica, retold the stories she heard from him — of marching red ants that had to be wiped out with flaming petrol, an entire crew struck down with dysentery, black mambas in the latrines, hippos and crocodiles roaming the set.

"He was the cowboy taken out of the western and put in real life, an icon made flesh."

The story lies at the heart of Huston’s legend, because, while it speaks of monstrous egotism and selfish obsession, it retains an aura of ancient grandeur, of heroism in its most masculine sense. Like many of his films, from The Maltese Falcon in 1941 to The Man Who Would Be King in 1975, it centred on a quest — a search for the Holy Grail, an attempt at Everest, or a heavyweight championship bout. Even more than his friends Ernest Hemingway and Welles, Huston was at once a sophisticated aesthete and an instinctive man of action. He was the cowboy taken out of the western and put in real life, an icon made flesh.

His appetite for women, certainly, was prodigious, one biographer describing him as a “compulsive satyr”. He had five wives, starting at the age of 18 with Dorothy Harvey, and taking in Irish aristocrat Lesley Black, actress Evelyn Keyes, ballerina Ricki Soma (mother of Anjelica and his elder son, Tony) and heiress Celeste Shane — or, as he had it, “a schoolgirl, a gentlewoman, a motion-picture actress, a ballerina, and a crocodile”. Behind this came a second string of mistresses who occasionally spanned marriages and included the mother of his second son, Danny. Beyond that were conquests of varying duration and degree, including actress Mary Astor, Henry Fonda’s ex-wife Afdera (an Italian countess), and innumerable others.

Some claimed he only ever loved one woman, Marietta FitzGerald; it was said that even on his deathbed, aged 81, her arrival at his side sent his electrocardiogram into a frenzy. Without exception, he gave no thought whatever to the effect of his behaviour on the women involved, or on his children. Evelyn Keyes once tried to put her foot down when forced to share the marital bedroom with his pet monkey, telling him it was either she or the animal. His answer told her where his priorities lay: “I’m sorry, honey, I just can’t bear to be parted from the monkey.”

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James Medd