Five things about John Huston’s real life that are more interesting than fiction
The names may be changed, but Clint Eastwood’s 1990 biopic White Hunter Black Heart, based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name by screenwriter Peter Viertel, tells the pre-production story of 1951’s The African Queen, and the obsessive nature of its director John Huston. Huston, a legendary actor, director and screenwriter, was known in Hollywood for bucking the system, his wild temper and his unique take on the art form. He could only be self-consciously played by another outsized legend like Clint Eastwood, but since this is just a slice of his unique career, I thought I’d highlight five things about John Huston’s real life that are more interesting than fiction:
- It’s always fascinating to find out that a man who began his work in the mid-century was already part of a Hollywood legacy. John Huston’s father, Walter Huston, was a stage and screen actor who began in Hollywood in the late 1920s to much acclaim. The Huston legacy continues with John's children Anjelica and Danny Huston and grandson Jack Huston. To this day, John Huston is the only person to direct both their parent and child to an Oscar win: Walter in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Anjelica in Prizzi’s Honor.
- Of course, being tied up in old Hollywood isn’t all glamour and sunshine. John Huston’s name first became famous in the town as the man who killed actress and dancer Tosca Roulien in a hit-and-run. At the time, his ability to slip charges shocked many, though today it’s believed that the whole story was likely a cover-up by MGM’s notorious “fixer” Eddie Mannix. In fact, many people think Huston, the son of an actor on contract with the studio, was likely made a patsy to save the reputation of a drunk Clark Gable.
- John Huston was spurred into action by the McCarthy Era House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Hollywood blacklist of Communist Party members. He, along with screenwriter Philip Dunne, actress Myrna Loy and director William Wyler, created the Committee for The First Amendment to protest HUAC. When members of their group were outed as Communist Party supporters, many like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield distanced themselves from the cause. Huston, fed up with the political climate in America, returned to his ancestral home of Ireland, which would feature heavily in his work.
- Huston was a renaissance man beyond his Hollywood work. He quit school at 14 to become a boxer and was an amateur lightweight boxing champion in California. As he developed his artistic side he studied painting and fine art at multiple schools. His boxing skills would be of use in the many fistfights he got in, though John Wayne famously knocked him out cold when Huston relentlessly mocked Wayne's lack of real military service. Huston's painting truly shaped his work as well, since he was a director who worked heavily from storyboards and only shot what he needed, rather than traditional “coverage.”
- After surviving McCarthyism, John Huston, a staunch Democrat, was particularly outspoken about his hatred of Ronald Reagan during his presidential run, even going so far to announce he’d never return to the U.S. if Reagan won. That’s why many were surprised when he attended the White House for a luncheon with Nancy Reagan. He later admitted some passing friendship with the First Lady back when she was still Nancy Davis, and noted the fact that her father was once his doctor led him to attend. Still, though he went willingly, Huston never let go of his principles – when Nancy asked if her husband hadn’t turned out to be a better President than Huston predicted, he famously answered, "Worse, my dear – far, FAR worse!"
For better and worse, John Huston is an outsized character in Hollywood history, famously divorcing his wife in order to keep a monkey one day, and adopting a homeless youth the next. The vicelike grip of the studios on Golden Age Hollywood required an even bigger, louder bully to stand up to them, and in many ways Huston changed the face of cinema. This month, join us to watch White Hunter Black Heart and get a better understanding of the troubled, charismatic man behind so many cinematic classics.