An Interview With John Huston

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John Huston was born on August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri, a town that his grandfather won in a poker game, according to family legend. He was the son of Walter Huston, who, after fifteen years as a vaudeville headliner, became one of America’s finest dramatic actors, best known for playing the old farmer in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and for the title role in Dodsworth . He was forty-six before he made his first film and again achieved instant critical and popular success. Until his death, Walter Huston appeared in all his son’s films.

John Huston’s mother was Rhea Gore Huston, a talented newspaperwoman, horse fancier, and inveterate traveler. The parents separated when John was three and later divorced. The boy grew up following his mother around the country to a succession of reporting jobs spelled by visits to his father on the vaudeville circuit.

As a young man he was a ranking lightweight boxer in California, winning twenty-two of twenty-five bouts, briefly attached to the Mexican cavalry, a street artist in Paris, and a reporter on the old New York Graphic . He began his motion-picture career as a screenwriter on such films as The Killers and Sergeant York.

He has directed thirty-eight movies, among them: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Badge of Courage, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, The Misfits, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye , and The Man Who Would Be King . Huston also occasionally acts in films and appeared in The Cardinal, The Bible, Chinatown, The Wind and The Lion , and Myra Breckinridge.

He won the Academy Award for best direction for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948; The Screen Directors Guild Award for The Asphalt Jungle in 1950; and the New York Film Critics Award for Moby Dick in 1956. Along the way he has also been a big-game hunter, a high-stakes gambler, a long-time resident of Ireland and of Mexico, where he now lives, and he has been married five times.

The interview began on the Burbank Studios set of Annie , Huston’s first musical. He is slouched in the director’s chair, a gangling, seemingly fleshless man with a grizzled beard and deep creases radiating from his eyes like spokes. With his slat-thin arms and folded legs, he suggests a collapsible yardstick. He is dressed with almost deliberate anonymity, loafers, nondescript dark blue slacks, and one of the last white, messageless T-shirts in America. He is seventy-five now and moves with a slow, stiff grace. Between takes, he sips lemonade from a huge Styrofoam cup. And he talks.

You managed to avoid much formal schooling in your life, didn’t you?

School bored the hell out of me. It was tedious. Irksome. I regret this in a way because today I don’t think of myself as an educated man. In another way, it’s just as well. Instead of giving form and shape to my view of life, formal schooling would only have limited me. Of course, I admire disciplined learning in others, the academic education. It’s just that the one I had stood me better.

You almost didn’t make it to adulthood. At least you were told you wouldn’t.

Yes, the doctors thought I was doomed by a heart ailment. I’m not sure something like this means as much to a kid as to a grown man. At the time I was ten. It didn’t terrify me. I learned to accept it. I wasn’t allowed to play or eat a normal diet. I was told I’d certainly die if I did. But I resisted it. Somehow I knew they were wrong and I was right. I can still remember the names of the specialists who attended me over sixty years ago, and I can’t account for what they did to that child.

Were you drawn to the movies early?

No. Kids in my time didn’t haunt theaters. There were no movie buffs, no autograph seekers with that almost unhealthy preoccupation with the famous. Oh sure, the girls loved a Rudolph Valentino. But movies were not the consuming subject in my circle. To this day, having a single consuming interest is unthinkable to me. At different times in my life, boxing, writing, the horses, and art have been just as important to me as making pictures.

The greatest influence on your formative years was not someone in film making, was it?

No, it was Stanton MacDonald-Wright. He and Morgan Russell were the first Americans to paint abstractions. As a young man, I was enrolled in the Art Students League in Los Angeles. We invited Wright over as a mentor. In my judgment, he knew more about the Renaissance than Bernard Berenson. He also knew Chinese art and music. He composed music and spoke several languages. He introduced me to Baudelaire, Verlaine, Balzac, Rabelais. Wright had an extraordinary turn of mind and tongue. I remember how he described a fat woman he’d seen on the street as looking, below her waist, like two young boys wrestling. Whatever education I’ve got, this man furnished the foundation. I owe him more than I can ever express.