Writing Film Biography: John Huston

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I. Choosing the Subject

The subject of a biography is an uneasy mixture of what interests the author and what the publishers will buy. Ideally, you should have a subject whose appeal will sustain you for several years, art that is still relevant and influential, unpublished material available in archives, family and friends to interview, and no competing biography in print.

My biography of Huston began as a life of Sylvia Plath. When my proposal for Plath was turned down by publishers--the market seemed saturated and female editors didn't relish a man writing about her--my new agent then sold my proposal for a life of Huston to Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House. But there was one drawback. Until recently, an author's advance was paid in two halves. Now, as publishers squeeze authors, it was disadvantageously cut into fourths, with the last slice coming a year after publication.

The film director (1906-87) turned out to be a much more sympathetic and attractive figure than the brilliant but unclubable poet. Huston had an amazing array of talents and his life, most unusually, was as fascinating as his work. I was attracted to the themes of his men-without-women films: the virile fraternity, the failed quest for an impossibly elusive goal, the mockery of cruel fate, the sense of victory in defeat, the Conradian fall from grace and attempt to recover lost self-esteem. I was especially interested in his films that were inspired by both literature and art, his exotic locales, his friendships with Hemingway and Bogart, his personal courage, and his relationships with many beautiful and talented women. He also had a perplexing mixture of good and bad traits. He was brave, generous, loyal to friends, kind to the sick and the weak. He was also consistently unfaithful, rough on his wives and children, hostile to homosexuals, occasionally cruel, a hunter of foxes and killer of big game. But I was determined not to make moral judgments of Huston's conduct, and to take pleasure in his impressive achievements.

A cross between a Renaissance prince and a Regency rake, the virile and infinitely versatile boxer, horseman, journalist, playwright, screenwriter, stage director, film actor, painter, art connoisseur, lover of luxury and of women was worth a book even if he'd never made a movie. He was my favorite director (born the same year as my father) and had made some of the greatest American films: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Misfits, and The Dead. He'd also acted brilliantly in the title role of The Cardinal and as the evil Noah Cross in Chinatown, and had inspired fictional characters in Norman Mailer's The Deer Park, Peter Viertel's White Hunter, Black Heart, and Arthur Miller's Finishing the Picture; all three authors were impressed by Huston's intriguing character.

I'd been to all the locales, from Mexico and Morocco to Uganda and Japan, where Huston made his far-ranging movies. This gave me a greater understanding of why he chose to work there and what difficulties he encountered. I'd also known and befriended a number of his friends, many of them no longer living: Arthur Miller, who wrote The Misfits, and his wife Inge Morath, who took still photographs of the film; Peter Viertel, who worked on many films with Huston, and also wrote a memoir about him; Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote the script of The Roots of Heaven; Evelyn Keyes, his third wife; Jack Cardiff, his English cinematographer; Angela Allen, his script supervisor; Sir John Woolf, the English producer of Romulus Films; and Walter Mirisch, the producer of The Unforgiven and Sinful Davey.

Huston was the most literate American director. Almost all of his thirty-seven feature films (he also made three excellent war documentaries) were based on important plays and fiction, and he adapted works by Melville, Kipling, Stephen Crane, James Joyce, B. Traven, Dashiell Hammett, Malcolm Lowry, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. …