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Cinema : Movie Kings: Huston, Lean, Coppola, Scorsese

November 26, 1989|Patrick Goldstein | Goldstein writes about entertainment for The Times

While rewriting his script for "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," John Milius asked John Huston what directing was all about.

"You will confer with generals," the aging director told the eager young screenwriter. "You will dine at the table with kings and you will sleep with titled women. All this you will do while being dead broke. That's what being a director is."

The daft exaggeration of a garrulous old man? From Huston, it's, if anything, an understatement. His exploits form the core of Lawrence Grobel's THE HUSTONS (Charles Scribner's Sons: $24.95; 752 pp.), a sprawling saga that richly details the lives of Huston, his father Walter and her offspring, Anjelica, Tony and Danny.

A gambler, rogue and womanizer of epic proportions (he went through five wives and innumerable mistresses), Huston was fueled by a restless energy that not only produced a staggering body of work (from "The Maltese Falcon" through "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "The African Queen," to "Prizzi's Honor") but a treasure-trove of adventures.

Initially intrigued by painting and boxing, Huston turned to writing and directing after watching, awestruck, as Eugene O'Neill rehearsed his father, Walter, in the original production of "Desire Under the Elms."

This is not to say that Huston approached his art with any great discipline. Toiling as a screenwriter in 1930's Hollywood, he was a reckless heel, getting caught with another woman by his first wife, totaling his car in a drunken wreck and later killing a woman in another auto accident. He was the kind of guy who took his first $500 book advance, went to bet on a friend's horse at Saratoga, fell into a crap game before the race--and won $11,000.

In 1941, making his debut as a director, he concocted a gem--"The Maltese Falcon," whose dark shadows and brooding antiheroics not only made Humphrey Bogart a star but ushered in the era of the film noir. Oscar night found Huston, true to form, sitting with his second wife while blowing kisses to his current mistress, Olivia de Havilland, and winking at Mary Astor, with whom he'd had an affair while making "Falcon."

Huston went on to greater fame, making movies about his favorite theme--the pursuit of impossible dreams. Grobel does his best to sketch Huston's cinematic artistry, but he's far more successful probing his life than his work.

Vacationing in Cuba, Huston challenged Ernest Hemingway to a boxing match. Hemingway blustered: "I'm gonna cool the SOB," but Huston backed off when told Hemingway had a bad heart.

In Paris, he tried to persuade Jean-Paul Sartre to script a film about Freud. They didn't hit it off: Huston said Sartre had an eye "like an omelette," while Sartre told his wife: "(Huston) is not even sad--he's empty."

Sartre was not far wrong. Even Lillian Ross, a longtime Huston admirer, wrote in a famous New Yorker profile: "His eyes look watchful, and yet strangely empty of all feeling." Judging from Grobel's account, Huston's boozy escapades--and obsessive philandering--may well have been his antidote to a haunting fear of rejection.

Huston never adequately deciphered his turbulent attachment to his mother, a high-strung woman and frustrated artist who both smothered and rejected him. When Huston, at age 19, challenged a man to a duel in Mexico City, it was broken up by his mother, who suddenly appeared to retrieve her wayward son.

Women loved him. And hated him. And came back for more. He proposed to his second wife, Lesley Black, the first night he met her. She accepted. He married his third wife, Evelyn Keyes, in Las Vegas--24 hours after carousing all night with Ava Gardner. When he died, he was living with a woman whom he'd met when she was working for his fifth wife--as her maid.

"John couldn't take the suggestion of any kind of rejection without desperately going off and comforting himself with some female conquest," explained De Havilland, who would gladly have married him if she'd been asked. Another old flame, Maka Czernichew, insists that he despised women, especially weak ones. "He admired strength," she said. "And everything that would resist him."

In his later years, Huston was a sad sight. Chilly and distant to his kids, hobbled by emphysema, plagued by financial woes and woozy with drink (his son, Tony, remembers him polishing off eight vodka martinis after dinner), he had the sorrowful air of a toothless lion in winter.

Still, in his last years he somehow summoned the energy to churn out a string of dazzling films, from "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Wise Blood" to "Prizzi's Honor" and "The Dead."

What made John Huston so indomitable? When he was nearly 70, he took an acting job in a film directed by Orson Welles. Late one night, he approached Welles, an old friend and rival whose first triumph, "Citizen Kane," came in the same year as Huston's "Maltese Falcon." Huston wanted to know what this new movie was all about.

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