It can't have been easy to tie up all the elements, elegant to ornery, that made up John Huston, but the film which now labors under the title "John Huston, The Man, The Movies, the Maverick" seems to have managed it. Full to the brim with his cronies, his loves, his wives and his fellow artists, it is a great, walloping, gusty, gutsy, funny, unsparing and ultimately inspiring film, and two hours in its company is like a tiny, precious sliver of Huston himself.
Producer Joni Levin and director Frank Martin, who co-wrote, with Charles Degelman, the film's non-interview segments, were canny in their choice of subjects. There are the men who, like Huston, are themselves great natural storytellers: Michael Caine, diabolically deft; Robert Mitchum, the film's perfect host, who holds the patent on one of the better Huston impressions. And there is the unexpectedly trenchant Ossie Morris, Huston's cinematographer on "Moby Dick," "Moulin Rouge," "Beat the Devil" and more, who clearly missed nothing, off-screen or on.
There are, of course, the stars: Lauren Bacall with firsthand observations about the shooting of "The African Queen," and a candid appraisal of Huston vis-a-vis women; Paul Newman, who considers "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" his best work, and who pegs its director as "an eccentric's eccentric." There are two of Huston's children, Anjelica and Danny, speaking warmly and candidly, any feelings from their childhood of distance or estrangement clearly assuaged by their closeness with their father in his last five years.
There are those who knew him up-close and loved him anyway: ex-wife Evelyn Keyes, telling an almost marriage-busting race-track anecdote; Danny Huston's beautiful mother, Zoe Sallis, insightful about Huston's Irish years; Arthur Miller, speaking not only about "The Misfits" but of the reason Marilyn Monroe had such a warm spot in her heart for the director.
And there is linchpin Tommy Shaw, Huston's customary assistant director, shooting down the canard that Clark Gable's work in the wild mustang sequence of "The Misfits" contributed to his subsequent heart attack. It was one of Hedda Hopper's more widely circulated beliefs, but when Shaw says emphatically, " She came closer to the wild horses than Gable did," the clip that accompanies him makes that fact abundantly clear.
The documentary is constructed like a ramble through a fictional attic, with props and pictures and home-movie snippets guaranteed to kick up memories: Walter Huston's voice singing "September Song"; the "African Queen" herself; lifetime horseman Huston on his beloved Irish estate, St. Clarens, and enough of John Huston's oils to validate his son Danny's claim that his father might have been a more-than-decent painter.
The portrait here is of a man of almost too many talents, whose accomplishments as the "master at the avoidance of boredom," as Mitchum calls him, may have trivialized his more serious gifts. As Michael Caine notes, "His weaknesses were women, gambling and horses and he spent most of his life financing these weaknesses."
There's the clear feeling that he must have been hell on women, and Lauren Bacall reinforces it. "I don't think John liked women very much. . . . I don't think he respected them. I think he respected the mothers of his children as the mothers of his children . . . but I would hate to have been in love with him."
Arthur Miller suggests that always nagging Huston slightly was the idea that "he was missing the great artistic achievement that comes from long thought and quiet preparation . . . that the helter-skelter was robbing him of that concentration." It's certainly a rationale for Huston's eccentric batting average: one clear masterpiece for each decade he worked and a lot of detritus cluttering up the infield.
One warning: The film has an opening that makes your heart sink, a great anecdote about the 12-year-old Huston, simultaneously unreeling in print and read aloud. Take heart, you will not be read to forever; this is only an awkward beginning to a nicely visual film. And once it gets up steam, it truly soars.
The film plays tonight as a benefit for the Los Angeles County Museum's Film Department. Tickets for the buffet and film are $100; a limited number of tickets for the screening alone are available at $25. Information: (213) 857-6542.
Huston's life was a cat's cradle of contradictions, picked out, or so it seemed, by irony. So perhaps Huston would have found something ironically amusing in the fact that the film's distributor, Ted Turner, is the man whom the director fought over the colorization of "The Maltese Falcon" with his literal last breaths.
The documentary will debut on Turner's TNT Network on Monday, June 12 at 5 p.m., with repeats that night at 8 and Sunday, June 18 at 11 a.m. The next Huston masterwork to have to fight off colorization is "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Can anybody find that funny?