Barely done wrangling with John Huston over a rewrite of "The African Queen," screenwriter Peter Viertel produced a novel that is still regarded as a masterpiece of Hollywood literature.
Published in 1953, Viertel's "White Hunter, Black Heart" was a thinly fictionalized account of the tense relationship between screenwriter "Pete Verrill" and a romantic, obsessive movie director, "John Wilson."
"Viertel has written himself one whale of a story; John Huston could make a whale of a movie from it," Times critic Joseph Henry Jackson wrote at the time.
Thirty-five years later, Clint Eastwood is apparently close to making the movie for Warner Bros. He would direct the film and star in the Wilson-Huston role.
Warner marketing executive Joe Hyams, who represents Eastwood for the studio, confirmed that the actor is strongly interested in the project.
But Hyams said Eastwood might begin work on another movie first.
"It's not a certainty at this point," Hyams said of the "Heart" movie, which would be produced by Eastwood's Malpaso Productions in association with Ray Stark's Rastar Productions. A Rastar spokesman declined to comment.
In any case, "White Hunter, Black Heart" appears to have a history as tangled and incestuous as any project to come out of Hollywood in recent years.
For openers, producer Ray Stark was a longtime friend and associate of Huston, who died last August at 81. Stark produced four Huston-directed films--"Reflections in a Golden Eye," "Fat City," "The Night of the Iguana" and "Annie."
"Night of the Iguana" co-star Deborah Kerr, as it happens, is married to Viertel. The couple now live in Switzerland and Spain, according to Viertel's business manager, Jess Morgan.
Viertel--according to his agent, Irving (Swifty) Lazar--wrote a first draft screenplay for "White Hunter" in the 1950s. Columbia Pictures, where Stark has had production deals for decades, bought the project, and a number of film makers tried to do it over the years.
Writer-director Jim Bridges did a rewrite at one point, and there was talk of Walter Hill directing at another, according to Lazar.
There was also talk of Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange playing lead roles in the film, which is set in Africa just before filming begins on a movie that is, quite obviously, "The African Queen."
Lange, apparently, would have been the Katharine Hepburn figure. "But that didn't work out," says Lazar.
Shortly before Huston died, the property was purchased from Columbia by director-producer Burt Kennedy, who brought it to Rastar, under president Doreen Burgeson, according to one source familiar with the movie's recent history.
Kennedy, who did another rewrite, was eventually bought out. Stanley Rubin, meanwhile, became co-producer for Rastar--and Rubin just happens to have been a friend of Eastwood ever since he produced one of the actor's first movies, "Francis in the Navy" in 1955.
Apparently, Eastwood and Stark already had a bit of a link when, through Rubin, the actor-director (Eastwood) got interested in a film about the director-actor (Huston).
That's because Columbia had just given Warner and Eastwood its script for "Bird," the Charlie Parker biography recently directed by Eastwood, in exchange for a Huston script titled "Revenge," which--brace yourself--is being produced by Stark and shot partly in Puerto Vallarta, where Kerr, Viertel, Huston, Stark and others spent many long hours on the set of "Iguana."
One source familiar with the movie said the film might be shot in Africa next summer. The roles other than Eastwood's haven't been cast, the source said.
In writing about Huston last year, film critic Pauline Kael described Viertel's book as "perhaps the best novel about movie-making ever written." She added: "It's like 'My Dinner With Andre' crossed with a Hemingway novel."
The Viertel-Bridges-Kennedy screenplay leans toward the Hemingway side of the mix. It depicts an angry, unfettered, genius-director who becomes obsessed with shooting a big bull elephant before he will get down to the business of filming a movie that he expects to call "the African something-or-other."
Apparently, there's some basis for the elephant obsession. Katharine Hepburn, in her recent book about the making of "The African Queen" (the film was released in 1951), told how Huston marched off to hunt elephants during a break in the shooting. She wanted to go hunting with him, and co-star Humphrey Bogart advised against it.
"Katie, what's happened to you? You're a decent human being," the actress recalls Bogart having advised when he learned that she intended to go shooting.
Be that as it may, she went.
Given Eastwood's record on the "Dirty Harry" front, the elephants would probably do well to stand clear if "White Hunter, Black Heart" is really a "go."