Book Review: John Huston: Courage And Art

The trouble with me is that I am forever and eternally bored…If I’m threatened with boredom, why I’ll run like a hare. – John Huston


Early on in his biography of John Huston, Jeffrey Meyers shares many of the adjectives frequently used to describe the legendary director: intelligent, charming, confident, self-centered, and courageous. These are all repeated more than once by Huston’s closest confidantes with an emphasis on Huston’s irrepressible charm, resonant voice, and aura of recklessness.

It is no surprise then that it is film critic Andrew Sarris’ observation that Huston was “a Hemingway character lost in a Dostoevsky novel” that opens John Huston: Courage and Art. Beginning with a somewhat tedious prologue that details Huston’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway, Meyers never strays from painting an image of the adventurous and hyper masculine larger-than-life figure that is John Huston.

Hemingway and Huston: A bromance built around who was more manly (It was Hemingway. There's a dead iguana to prove it.)


Huston led a storied life. His early years especially – a nomadic childhood where he was forced to live as an invalid, an emotionally distant mother, an absent father – gave Huston the desire for the adventurous spirit he would wholeheartedly embody later in life.

But his career inHollywooddidn’t begin so easily. In the 1920s, Huston bounced around from job to job before following his father, actor Walter Huston to Los Angeles. In fact, we can safely say that without Walter’s support (he literally supported John often to make up for his absence in his childhood) John Huston might not have achieved the success he did as early on in his screenwriting and directing career.

John’s first attempt to be a screenwriter failed miserably thanks to a failed marriage and an incident where Huston accidentally killed a woman. He eventually found himself destitute in London. But Huston returned to Hollywoodin 1935, changed and more mature. He began a successful screenwriting career at Warner Bros (Jezebel, High Sierra) and in 1941 directed his first hit, The Maltese Falcon.

Walter and John Huston on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Maltese Falcon catapulted Huston’s directing career and afterwards he could essentially do no wrong. (Though he did.)  From 1941 to 1987, he directed 40 films and worked tirelessly on each one, even those that were failures. Huston often started his next project before he completed his last. Huston directed his final film, The Dead, at the end of his life; it was released three months after his death.

An immensely productive director, Huston had a fascinating career and worked many significant writers, actors, and figures in his 46 year career. At times, it just seems like Meyers is name dropping every notable cultural figure from the ’40s to the ’60s. A brutal fist fight with Errol Flynn? Working with a young Truman Capote on Beat the Devil? Almost drowning Gregory Peck on Moby Dick? Bringing Carson McCullers to his estate in Ireland weeks before her death? Really? Really.

Meyers takes us through Huston’s tireless directorial method, breaking it down picture by picture. There are details on Huston’s friendships with Humphrey Bogart and Orson Welles, how he got actors to deliver great performances, how he believed the studio system generated better screenplays, and how he handled directing Marilyn Monroe – twice.

Audrey Hepburn and John Huston on the set of The Unforgiven

What is almost more interesting than Husto’s life and his films are the women he romanced. These women, many who were in his life for decades, give wonderful insight into the man behind the director. Some even feel more like a character in the biography than Huston himself.

Married five times but never faithful to any of his wives, Huston had an endless number of affairs. There was Olivia de Havilland, who he fought with Errol Flynn over; Eloise Hardt, one of his long time secretaries; Marietta Tree, a socialite who’s intense affair and friendship with Huston lasted for nearly 40 years; Zoe Sallis, the mother of his son Danny; and Marciela Hernandez, the Mexican woman who he spent his final years with.  Sex, for Huston, was just a sign of his vitality and because he was easily bored,  he lost interest.

And then there is Huston’s relationship with his four children: Tony, Anjelica, Danny, and Allegra. If his relationships with women are mostly amusing (at least I found them that way), Huston’s relationship with his children is every bit troubling. John Huston didn’t become a father until later in his life. Though he was mostly absent from his two oldest children’s lives, he was a domineering presence. For his younger two children, he was more of a grandfather figure. Later in their lives, Huston did everything to help his children’s careers, directing Anjelica to an Oscar for Prizi’s Honor in 1985, giving Tony a screenwriting credit for The Dead, and launching Danny’s early directing career.

John Huston with his children Tony and Anjelica Huston on the set of The Dead.

Of Huston’s 40 films, I have only seen nine. After reading  Courage and Art, it is something I am slowly changing.

But dare I say that my favorite is Annie? Yes, I do. But only because I think that would trouble Jeffrey Meyers and his understanding of John Huston. John Huston: Courage and Art does not stray from highlighting the director’s hyper-masculine qualities, his bravado, and his aura. You can almost smell the cigar smoke as you read it. A movie about a little red-headed orphan girl doesn’t quite fit in with the mystique of John Huston and his storied career. Though Annie is hardly as disastrous as Meyers makes it out to be.

What is exceptional about Courage and Art is the seamless navigation of the life of an American renaissance man. John Huston is someone who had many interests: hunting, gambling, smoking, sex, and filmmaking. (You know, man stuff.) He seemed to know everyone who was anyone and was influenced by many great American thinkers and writers. He brought all this into his films, striving to keep each work authentic and giving them an inimitable style.  It safe to say though that his life was just a great and intriguing as his films. At times, his life stood out as greater than his work. (Seriously there are a ton of mistresses.) Meyers balances this road map for disaster quite easily and effectively.

John Huston led a fascinating life defined completely by his own terms and faults. Evelyn Keyes, one of his ex-wives, is quoted as saying that for Huston “life was a big game and he played it to the fullest.”

"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 73 he knows how old he is." -John Huston

Giveaway: If you would like to win a copy of John Huston: Courage and Art, send me an email (joanna.arcieri@gmail.com) with the subject line “John Huston”. Your chance to enter ends 10/17.

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