Director as rascal emerges in fine John Huston bio

“John Huston: Courage and Art” (Crown Archetype), by Jeffrey Meyers

The art behind films like “The African Queen” and “The Maltese Falcon” is impressive, as is director John Huston’s courage in shooting documentaries amid combat and standing up to the witch hunt for communists in postwar Hollywood.

Less admirable is the nerve it took for Huston to walk into a party with a new lover while knowing they would face his wife as well as his mistress.

Brilliant and easily bored, Huston was always up to something, on-screen and off. A desire for adventure and a sense of humor, plus a dash of danger, helped make him an appealing companion and collaborator. Even the many, many women he loved and mistreated came back for more.

As author Jeffrey Meyers puts it, “Huston defied convention and seemed to stride through life doing exactly as he pleased, indifferent to contracts and money, unencumbered by wives and children.” One of Huston’s less-adoring female friends adds, “And he got away with it.”

Meyers’ excellent biography, “John Huston: Courage and Art,” contrasts Huston’s self-absorbed personal life with his flair for filmmaking. Exceedingly readable and insightful, the book notes a thread common to his life and to “The Man Who Would Be King” and many of his three dozen or so feature films: Grandiose schemes often fall to the whim of fate, making the effort a greater sign of character than actually achieving the goal.

To challenge himself, Huston liked to make movies under difficult conditions. He abandoned the safe confines of the Warner Bros. studio for Mexico to shoot “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and to shoot “Moby Dick” in raging seas off Ireland. Directing nonactors presented a different kind of test, one reason for casting World War II hero Audie Murphy as the cowardly soldier in “The Red Badge of Courage.”

In life, too, Huston enjoyed taking the more uncertain path. He spent money as soon as he got it. For years he played lord of the manor on an Irish estate in spite of the financial drain. He was an absentee father but later helped his children get in the movie business as adults. In a wheelchair and tethered to oxygen, he continued directing films to the end.

Director Fred Zinnemann observed that his own outstanding career turned into “just another more or less boring success story.” For John Huston — hunter, gambler, art collector, painter, traveler, womanizer, raconteur, occasional actor — success in the movies was a means for creating something beautiful and keeping life interesting.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).

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