Oscar Directors: Huston, John (1906-1987)

Born August 5, 1906, Nevada, Missouri, John Huston was the son of the estimable actor, Walter Huston.

He made his first stage appearance at age three and spent much of his childhood traveling with his parents. After their divorce, in 1913, he began traveling on the vaudeville circuit with his father and the racetrack route with his mother.

At age 12, he was placed in a sanitarium to rest an enlarged heart and cure a kidney ailment. The frail boy’s recovery was complete that, and age 14, he quit a Los Angeles high school to become a boxer. He won the Amateur Light‑weight Boxing Championship of California, which led to a broken nose.

Huston made his professional stage debut at 19, playing a lead off Broadway. After marrying his high school sweetheart, he grew discontented with acting and marriage and moved to Mexico, where he became an officer in the cavalry. He became an accomplished rider and performed in a Madison Square Garden horse show.

Resigning his commission in 1928, he brought back home ‘Frankie and Johnny,’ a musical play he wrote in Mexico, which was performed by puppets in 1929 and published as a book in 1930. Meanwhile, Huston was engaged by his father’s friend, William Wyler, to play small parts in three of the director’s films.

Still restless, he began submitting short stories to the American Mercury, and then joined the staff of the New York Graphic as a reporter. But his casual treatment of facts led to his being fired.

Huston’s next stop was Hollywood, where he was hired by Sam Goldwyn as a screenwriter. Thanks to his father’s star status, he was able to switch over to Universal, for which he wrote dialogue for three films, two of them starring Huston Sr. In 1932, John left Hollywood to lead a nomadic existence in London and Paris.

According to biographer William F. Nolan, in John Huston: King Rebel (1965), he was promised a screenwriter’s job at Gaumont British but instead found himself singing on London street corners, for pennies and sleeping in Hyde Park. In Paris he studied painting and sketched tourists for a meal.

He briefly edited an illustrated maga­zine called Mid‑Week Pictorial. In 1933 he headed for Chicago to play the title role in the WPA production of ‘Abraham Lin­coln’ three years after his celebrated father had played the same part in a D. W. Griffith film.

In 1937, John Huston remarried and moved to Hollywood to try out screenwriting in more serious and professional mode. After collaborating on several Warner scripts, he was assigned to direct in 1941 Dashiell Hammett’s pri­vate‑eye noir drama, The Maltese Falcon, one of the best detective movie ever made.

He donned the uniform of a Signal Corps lieu­tenant late in 1942. While in service, he turned out some of the finest and most realistic documentaries about WW II. He was promoted to major and awarded the Legion of Merit for his work under battle conditions on the Pacific and European fronts.

Huston returned to Hollywood in 1945, divorced his sec­ond wife, and after courtship of Olivia de Havilland, married actress Evelyn Keyes in 1946. This marriage ended in divorce, in 1950.  By this time, he had estab­lished a reputation as colorful, impulsive, and unpre­dictable.

He brought to Broadway Jean‑Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit, which won the NY Drama Critics Award as the best for­eign play of 1946 but was a flop.

Huston’s first postwar film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, shot in Mexico, was a critical success. James Agee called it “one of the most visually alive and beautiful movies I have ever seen.” The NY Film Critics named Huston best director for this rugged drama of greed. He also won two Oscar Awards, best director and best screenplay, for this film.  Another Oscar, best supporting actor, went to his father, Walter Huston.

In 1947, with director William Wyler and others, Huston formed the Committee for the First Amendment, aiming to counter the industry witch-hunt by the House Un‑American Activities Committee.

In 1948, after the expiration of his contract with Warner, he formed Horizon Pictures, in partnership with independent pro­ducer Sam Spiegel. After getting out of commitment to direct Quo VadisHuston directed what many consider his best film, The Asphalt Jungle, a crime drama notable for its intricate plot, atmosphere, and characterization.

Huston scored another critical success, but a commercial failure, with The Red Badge of Courage, and an unqualified triumph with The African Queen. He recreated the colorful palette of crippled painter Toulouse‑Lautrec in the visually splendid Moulin Rouge (1952), for which scored another director nomination.

There were some misfires such as Moby Dick (1956) and The Unforgiven (1960), and some underestimated films at the time, such as The Misfits (1961), Freud (1962), and Night of the Iguana (1964).  Both gained stature with time, after a new generation of critics revisited them.

In 1952, angered by the HUAC investigations and the Hollywood blacklisting, he moved with his family into St. Clerans, an estate in Ireland’s County Galway. They separated after he became the father of future director Danny Huston (born May 14, 1962, in  Rome), by the unwed actress Zoë Sallis.

In 1972, he took up residence in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and married Celeste Shane, his fifth and last wife; they divorced in 1977.

Huston reached the nadir of his career with A Walk With Life and Death (1969), a vehicle for teenaged daughter Angelica. But he resur­faced in the 1970s with the atmospheric boxing drama, Fat City (1972), the rousing Kipling epic, The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and the satire of Southern‑style religion, Wise Blood (1979).

His films of the early 1980s were disappointing, especially the musical Annie (1982), but he made remarkable final bows with Prizzi’s Honor (1985), an offbeat black comedy of Mafia mores, which earned his daughter Angelica, an Oscar, and The Dead (1987), an elegant adaptation (scripted by son Tony) of a James Joyce story.

Huston, who began his career as actor, resumed performing in the 1960s, in between directing assignments. The tough‑guy macho image he projected was a reflection of a man in the Hemingway mold who lived as hard and dangerously as the protagonists in his movies.

In the last two decades of his life, he suffered from emphysema but continued working, occasionally taking breaks for resuscitation with the aid of an oxygen machine. His condition worsened toward the end of his career, and insurance companies refused to cover his last production, The Dead.

He was to play a cameo in Mr. North (1988), his son’s directorial debut, but fell ill with pneumonia and died on location, at 81.