A Ghost Eye View of an American Myth: John Huston by Tina L'Hotsky

BOMB 13 Fall 1985
013 Fall 1985

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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John Huston on the set of Prizzi’s Honor, ©1985 by ABC Motion Pictures, Inc.

Everyone was waiting for the paint to dry. Jack Nicholson had arrived on the set hours ago. Looking rumpled and slit-eyed, he slid out of his car and into his trailer to resume his slumbers. Huston had come onto the set at the crack of dawn, and upon inspection for shooting approval, had ordered all the walls to be repainted. The cast and crew of Prizzi’s Honor fell into a holding pattern while Huston sat in his 1940s style Winnebago and played Backgammon.

Prizzi’s Honor was into its seventh week of shooting in Los Angeles when I signed onto the West Coast Production to play a Laundress in a couple of scenes. I wanted to take a mental polaroid of Huston directing his 39th, and possibly last feature film. In this black comedy about a Mafia man’s forbidden romance, Huston was directing his daughter Angelica and her long time love, Jack Nicholson.

John Huston had come into my consciousness months before in New York while I was working on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan. I had heard of him in the blur of media and print and cinema over the years, but except for taking note of the fact that he had directed The Misfits, John Huston was just part of my Great National Unconscious.

During takes on Desperately Seeking Susan I witnessed the old male extras huddled together talking about Huston. It reminded me of a scene in Broadway Danny Rose when a group of old Jewish actors sit around a table in a New York deli spinning yarns and making great, grand jokes about a funky New York talent agent. Old Show-business. On the Seidelman set, the male extras, old Italian men in dyed black hair and toupees had forgotten their card game and were spinning John Huston tales in hushed and reverent tones. Some of them had worked in his films as far back as Key Largo. They all had stories to tell. Some hunched forward in excitement, others nodded in agreement. One man looked off into the distance as if to extend his thoughts about Huston and send them into the past on the smoky cloud of a memory. There were an epiphany of praises in this scene of condensed male admiration, but there seemed to be a general agreement on one issue: that John Huston was a Gentleman.

Lunch had come and gone for the staff of Prizzi’s Honor. The Production Assistants were running out of errands and were inventing word games on their walkie-talkies. Wardrobe and Make-up had been dozing off and on for hours and the lighting assistants were making kaleidoscopes with their gels. Only the extras, used to waiting, had brought along various amusements, card games, books, and cottage industries.

I was growing more and more irritable, I wasn’t getting my “quick impression of a legend” and my circa-‘60s polyester slacks were itching me. I had changed my make-up several times and bobby pins were sticking out of my wig. I had been watching Huston’s Winnebago for hours.

Two economy size bodyguards were stationed outside the door of Huston’s trailer. In a fit of pique I walked past them into the trailer. Thanks to my appearance, or perhaps not having consulted the shotlist, they mistook me for a cleaning woman.

I entered the Winnebago without knocking. It was filled with cigar fumes. Hunched over and absorbed in his game, Huston did not look up as I entered. I stood there until Huston’s gambling partner said, “We don’t need any towels.”

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John Huston, Ed Sullivan, and Edward G. Robinson.

I ran a hand through my red dynel wig. “Sorry, I’m not the maid … that’s not to say I’m not hired help. Actually, I’m an actress on this film.”

Huston looked up at this point. “You know,” I continued, “working in theatre is like playing the National Football League, but working in film is like playing chess— N’est-ce pas?

His partner made a move out of his chair.

“Sorry to burst in like this, but I’m getting a little restless.”

Huston nodded and said, “Patience, patience, you gotta do it right. Just as soon as the last stroke is dry, we’ll start rehearsing Jack.” His face softened. “Gee, I’m awfully darn sorry you’re bored, my dear. Have a seat.” His smile subdivided the broken web of etched lines that made his face resemble a Giacometti sculpture. He extended a bony hand towards me. Flashbulbs went off in my head.

Huston’s gambling partner left the trailer unceremoniously and we continued our conversation. He made a fist under his chin and studied me for a moment. “You know, you remind me of someone …”

“Sophia Loren?” I asked. “She was an extra on Quo Vadis in 1949. Do you remember her on the set of that film?” “Na,” said Huston. “Take off that wig for a minute.” I slid it off revealing my blonde hair with its two inch roots. “Marilyn, yeah Marilyn … kinda.” He looked off into infinity. “She was appreciated as an artist in Europe long before her acceptance as anything but a sex symbol in the United States. Jean-Paul Sartre considered Marilyn Monroe the finest actress alive. He wanted her to play the leading role in Freud. There was something very touching about her, a kind of vulnerability. We all knew that something awful was going to happen to her.” I sighed.

Out of a sense of politeness, Huston folded up his game of Backgammon to give me his full attention. And so, I discovered, the Marlboro man of Cinema had as fine a taste for gossip as anyone. He told me about the time Alfred Hitchcock made a play for Tippi Hedren while they were making The Birds and other things I don’t dare print. He told me about his “mixed bag” of women, his five wives whom he inventoried as “A Schoolgirl, a Gentlewoman, a Motion Picture Actress, a Ballerina, and a Crocodile.” Huston’s memory is surely a Hollywood Archive and I can vouch for his reputation as a storyteller.

We talked for a good two hours until we were interrupted by the electronic squawk of the walkie-talkies. “The paint is dry, Mr. Huston,” said a tiny metallic voice.

He jumped up with amazing agility and good humor. “Onto the set we go.” A golf cart driven by a Production Assistant came to deliver Huston to the set. By that time I was glad to leave his Cigar-haven.

Wig in place, I went and stood on my marks in the Laundry. I watched Huston feeding instructions to Jack Nicholson. His style as a director is to offer a few brush strokes—the right instructions here, the proper stance there, and let the artist act. Actors who require more detail in their direction do not enjoy working with him.

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Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner in Prizzi’s Honor, ©1985 by ABC Motion Pictures, Inc.

Huston directed like a maestro conducting an Orchestra: the lights were on, sound was ready; the camera was aimed and the actors were poised for dramatic action. Everyone unimportant stood off in the wings. With one philharmonic pause and a wave of his hand, Huston set the scene into motion.

The lights shimmered off the wall with its fresh coat of olive drab. Strategically placed workers began to move. The choreographed laundry bins glided across the arc of vision while a huge duffel bag made its trajectory across the room from a ceiling cable. Jack Nicholson crossed the camera at 45 degrees and stepped precisely onto his marks while a smoke machine created a steamy laundry room ambience.

Women folded tablecloths and men heaved big sacks into the washing machines. I wiped a hand across my brow in imitation of Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. This was a Huston film, a moment in Cinema History!

Huston repeated this half a dozen times, as if the pencil of time could erase small imperfections in his drama.

Jack Nicholson never flinched or changed expression. He remained stoic and firm, repeating his actions tirelessly. A trooper.

We switched locations to the parking lot to shoot Nicholson entering the Laundry. Huston attended to every detail, he was as meticulous with his inserts as he was with his master shots.

Then it was over. The sun was setting in the parking lot off of La Brea. The crew was loose-limbed and gathering up equipment. I leaned against a diesel truck and watched the wrap. Huston was engaged in rhetoric with the cameraman for a long while. As he sped off the set in his chauffeur-driven golf cart he turned and threw me a wink.

Some weeks later a couple of airplane tickets arrived in the mail along with an invitation from Huston to visit him in Los Caletas, his Mexican Jungle retreat. “Dinner and drinks in Los Caletas”—J.H.

I took an Aero-México flight. En-route I thought of Huston’s allegorical return to Mexico. He had been intricately involved in the past. As a young man he rode as a Cavalry Officer with one of the Mexican Revolutionary Armies. He filmed The Treasure of the Sierra MadreNight of the Iguana, and his metaphysical opus Under the Volcano on those soils. He is no stranger to Mexico and its exotic Death Cults. Los Caletas has been his home for the last five years; perhaps he feels that Mexico is also a graveyard.

 

Los Caletas

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Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, ©1961 by United Artists Corporation, Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

The wind-vacuumed sagebrush tumbled past me on a jet stream of silence as I crossed the courtyard to his Hacienda. Standing next to some tumbleweed and desert cacti was a full Bull elephant with its trunk raised, as if in greeting. I knew Huston had an affinity with animals, but he was mixing continents with this Pachyderm.

The whole place was alive with wildlife. A monkey scampered by and at least a dozen tropical birds flew overhead in a rainbow of feathers and beaks. Off into the distance there were coatimundis, opossums, deer, boars, ocelots, jaguars, and I thought I saw a man-sized chimpanzee chained to a tree.

Once, a playful monkey nearly bit off his third wife’s hand, but the whole animal kingdom loved John and he loved them. He put them in his films: the whale in Moby Dick, the capture of the mustangs in The Misfits, the hunt in The List of Adrian Messenger; there was animal symbolism in The Night of the Iguana, and all of the animals in The Bible.

Gladys Hill, Huston’s long-time secretary and co-writer, came to greet me at the patio. After she had shown me the house, the grounds and Huston’s collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts, she left me to my own devices.

I was on my way to my quarters when I heard his voice: that gentle, cultivated basstone. Houston appeared to be singing or carrying a tune. The voices were coming from his sleeping quarters. I wandered past an open cadenza door and looked in at Huston. He was jay-bird naked in a big old-fashioned wooden tub. A paunchy middle-aged man was scrubbing him down.

“Damn you Andrew!” said Huston. “I told you to get me Murphy’s oil soap … you know … in those big bars, not this purple Yardley’s shit!” he boomed. “I’m an Hombre, for God’s sake!” Then he started picking up the tune again …“Blow, blow, blow the man down …”

I watched this, fascinated. They appeared to be having some kind of argument.

“The overall impression of decline and waste in your career has been widely accepted since the early ’50s.” said Andrew as he lathered away at the Huston animal.

Huston punched at the bath water and let out a small snort of derision.

“Your laughter is much too sour for my taste and your characters indulge too freely in the sin of despair,” he continued.

“Get my back,” replied Huston, or rather “get off of it.”

“I don’t condone your fascination with doomed heroes—disillusioned outcasts indulging in sensory sensations for the sake of experience … those characters who inhabit the dimly-lit melodramas of the American Underworld.”

“Andrew,” said Huston wearily, “there are more failures in life than successes, so it deserves recognition. Despair,” boomed Huston, “is just another emotion on the big pallet. My anti-heroes are fellows of the gutter. I’ll admit that the Hemingway man breathes through all my films. Look at me, I was a bum for two years in Europe. I rode the rails in London and sang on street corners … I’ve paid my dues!”

It was then that I recognized Huston’s gentleman valet as being New York film critic Andrew Sarris.

“Yes, John,” said Andrew “we all know about your aura of danger and recklessness and irresponsibility—your riding, your womanizing, your drinking …”

Andrew tried to help Huston out of the tub, but Huston resisted. “God, you’re a deliberately dissonant bather, too.” he said.

Huston was floating into a funk, I could see it myself.

“Oh well,” said Andrew, “I will admit that talent may be in your work, but your genius is in your life … “

“Don’t patronize me, Andrew,” said Huston. Then he abruptly started singing again. “Get out of here and get ready for dinner, we’ve got guests tonight and I want you to work on a revision and retractment of some of that crap you’ve been writing. And here,” he said, handing him the bar of soap, “go wash your mouth out with this—”

After his exit Huston sat perfectly still for a long while. He looked like he was stewing in his own juices. Slowly he raised his eyes to the ceiling with an expression of almost religious intensity. He put his large hand over his heart (misdiagnosed early in life and misunderstood throughout the rest of it). Everything was quiet. I heard a mosquito buzz by my ear and heard the sounds of various animals braying and snorting in his small zoo outside. I heard him breathing, heavily, rhythmically. He was listening to the beating of his heart in heavy thumping rhythms. It was the pulse of the film world, the rhythm of sound and images beating through the decades, flashing stories and melodramas on the big screen for millions of Americans. He let out a sigh so huge and full of emphasis that the blades of the wooden fan above him started spinning wildly and several newspapers blew crazily around the room.

I crept down the hall into my room. The warm Mexican air lulled me into a quick siesta. I fell asleep dreaming of the Hemingway Man walking down Wall Street in various Safari outfits.

Later that evening I dressed for dinner. I was trying to throw together a Flamenco look when there was a knock at my door. It was Huston in formal dinner attire capped with a Sombrero. He was barefoot. “Ready for dinner, my dear?” He bowed and took my arm down the stairs and into the dining room.

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Albert Finney in Under the Volcano, © 1984 by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Andrew was lighting the candelabra as we entered. Aromatic cooking smells came at us. Huston waved him off and Andrew went into the kitchen, towel on arm. The large mahogany table (somewhat incongruous in this jungle setting) was set for about 12 people, yet no one had arrived. Huston smiled graciously its he pulled my chair. Andrew came in with a pitcher of frosted margueritas. We were well into our second cocktail when I first wondered where the guests were.

When I queried Huston on this, he smiled and said absentmindedly, “Coming, coming …” We talked awhile longer; finally, he put down his drained glass and placed himself at the head of the table. I looked at him, he looked at me. Suddenly he yelled, “ACTION!”

The lights in the room flickered and a warm breeze came from nowhere. It was a tropical breeze, a warm monsoon whisper. The room took on the air of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Suddenly, luminescent forms began to glow at each place setting. There was the sound of a lazy hand across a celestial harp and Humphrey Bogart materialized in his chair.

“Yo Bogie,” said Huston. Then Ernest Hemingway smiled at us from across the table in his hunting attire, .22 rifle in hand. “Hello, Papa,” said Huston, “I see you’ve brought along your instrument of extinction.”

There was male youth idol of the ’50s Montgomery Clift looking pencil fine and sensitive. Costume designer Edith Head arrived in leopard flair, highlighted in topaz. There was a dash of handsome Richard Burton in dramatis literatti and Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano materialized, pie-eyed. Nineteenth Century French artist Marcel Duchamp fell in with an irony next to his Gallic counterpart, film director François Truffaut, who was accompanied by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. David O. Selznick arrived right after Ricki Soma, Huston’s fourth wife, made her graceful appearance at the table.

I saw Andrew shoot a look of frozen contempt across the room as film critic James Agee came into form. I noticed one chair remained empty beside Montgomery Clift. James Agee tapped his fork against a water glass. “Cocktails, please, Andrew.” The dinner had begun.

Huston looked at me, pleased as punch with his big smile. “Hello everybody and welcome to Los Caletas. I suppose you’ve all got stories to tell, old gripes to grind. Feel free. Eat to your hearts’ content and drink yourselves silly—you’re all past the danger meridian now! Har, har …You all know each other, so no introductions are in order. I’d like you to meet Miss Lhotsky, she will be directing features in a few years. I met her on the set of my last film when she was doing a little spy journalism on me.

“I’d like to propose a toast to you all, but first, please stand up Humphrey and take a bow. You gave honor and distinction to my work, Bogart. You became a film classic with those six films we did together. Offscreen you were just a medium sized man, not particularly impressive, but something happened when you were playing the right part; those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality. You were positively heroic in High Sierra!”

Bogart paused for a moment. “Thanks a lot Huston, but I still haven’t forgiven you for leaving me tied to that chair in 1942 when we were shooting Across the Pacific. Like the time you suddenly got called off the set for emergency war duty and nobody could figure out your Indian rope trick. I’m still all wound up about it. Quite the practical joker, aren’t you?”

Huston was poised for a retort when a hearty, ruddy, Richard Burton said, “Well, I’ve got a great Huston story. Back in ’63 before we started shooting Night of the Iguana in Mexico, there were a lot of tensions on the set. There was me, Elizabeth, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, and Ava Gardner. In other words, a lot of internecine strife. Before we started the film John bought us five gold-plated derringers and solemnly presented them to each of us with four bullets with our names inscribed on them. Well, it worked, there were no fireworks on that set!”

“Actors are such children,” said Hitchcock.

There was a moment of silence at use table, a little uneasiness, then Truman Capote said, “Well, Alfred, what is it, children or cattle?”

“Yes, Alfred,” said Hemingway. “Don’t keep us in suspense.”

Truman Capote then lifted a plate of potatoes to Hitchcock and said, “Here, have an Egg MacGuffin.”

“Friends, friends, I personally believe that with an actor, the aim is to build an ego, not destroy it. Truman, you proved your courage to me when you scripted Beat the Devil. You came through with the material all laid up in the hospital with an impacted wisdom tooth. You’ve got a pit bull in that soul, but please, do not malign my guests tonight.”

He looked across the table with a tenderness. “How’s my fourth wife tonight?”

“Just heavenly, John,” said Ricki Soma Huston.

“I met Ricki when she was a 13-year-old ballerina; nearly took her to the New York Ballet in a horse and carriage but the war intervened. —But we were fated to be married years later. This gal broke her front tooth trying to prove she could ride as well as I could.”

“Those years on our Estate in Ireland were the happiest of my life.”

“Those feelings are mutual,” said Huston. “Your car crash in 1969 was a great tragedy to me. I miss you still and so does Angelica. Do you know that our daughter is co-starring in Prizzi’s Honor?

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Angelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor, © 1985 by ABC Motion Pictures, Inc.

“We know everything up yonder, John.”

Huston’s gaze fell to James Agee. “I’d like to thank you Agee for that flattering story you wrote about me for Life magazine after the War. You are indeed the “Poet of Truth.” Have you met my valet, Andrew? And, I’d like to add, you did some good work in co-scripting African Queenwith me. Thanks again, Jim.”

Huston got up and went over to Hemingway. He jumped up on his toes and started to mock-challenge him to a boxing match. “Papa,” Huston said, “You’ve been kinda quiet tonight.”

“Just my nature, I suppose. I’m always suspicious of people at first. Anyway, I’m ticked off at Selznick for alienating you away from directing my novel Farewell to Arms. I wanted you to direct, not that hack that butchered it. I know you quit the assignment because Selznick violated your principles with all those busy-body memorandums he kept sending you.”

“David O.,” said Huston, “I trust you did not bring any memorandums to this dinner table tonight?”

“No, and I promise not to write on any napkins either. I guess I was a big bag of wind then, but my late marriage to Jennifer Jones had me in a spin. Those sunset marriages can ruin a man’s career.”

The guests ate heartily. For ephemeral beings they had some appetite. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to be enjoying his Enchiladas and Richard Burton was putting away Tequila potboilers faster than I could count. When it came to the drinkers, Malcolm Lowry beat them all, hands down.

The dessert had just arrived, sugared snow peas in a mound of custard sauce, when a light change, a whoosh and a lazy hand across a celestial harp brought Marilyn Monroe to the table. She appeared more angelic than ever in a hot pink evening gown. “Oh, sorry I’m late,” she whispered, “but there was a traffic jam in hyperspace and it took a while before they cleared the runway. Hi everybody.” She walked over to Huston and gave him a hug and a squeeze. She sat next to Monty, her soulmate of sensitivity.

Edith said, “Marilyn, your gown is sensational!”

“Thanks,” said Marilyn. “I wore this in the dance number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” said Capote. “Did you know that a little punk-rocker chick, Madonna, is ripping off that scene in her MTV?”

“Just another nostalgia casualty.” said Marilyn. “Forget it. Something a lot of people don’t know is that John saved me from the casting couch in 1949. He pulled strings to get me my first screen test opposite John Garfield and he gave me my first big break by casting me In Asphalt Jungle, which got my career rolling.”

“You were lovely in all your films, Marilyn,” said Huston, “but you misbehaved terribly in The Misfits in ’63. The nembutals, the Jack Daniels … and you treated Arthur Miller dreadfully! You were pretty far gone in your disintegration at that point.”

“Oh John,” said Marilyn. “I’m sorry for being so neurotic, but Hollywood was spitting me out then and my lifespan as a sex goddess was coming to an end. I was terribly unhappy.”

Huston patted her hand. “Yes dear, I know. I understand. It was rough.” He then looked at Montgomery Clift who had been quiet through much of the dinner. “How’s the bad boy tonight?”

“I like it better on the other side, John. More peaceful.”

“Maybe your demons have left you,” said Huston.

“I think they’ve gone and fled. I’m sorry too, Huston, for behaving so god-awful on Freud, but you know I was pretty far gone too, especially in those later films.”

“Yes, I remember, on Freud it was the self-induced rope burns and the phony law suit, etcetera, etcetera … I nearly hauled off and hit you then. You were using the same formula as Marilyn. One thing I must say is that it was quite amazing how intelligent you appeared playing Sigmund Freud even though half your mind and spirit were gone. I marveled at your portrayal.”

“Please,” said François Truffaut, “let me add that I thought Montgomery and Marilyn were extraordinary together in The Misfits, particularly in one long love scene behind a saloon against a hill of beer cans and junk automobiles. It was a love scene that wasn’t a love scene. Beautiful.”

“Sometimes people are at their best when they are at their worst,” said Edith Head.

More and more food arrived from the kitchen, but I had no sensation of time passing, and I had hardly any appetite that night. I watched fascinated as these Hollywood ghosts revealed themselves with such verve and candor. Huston looked slyly at me from his place of honor.

Duchamp spoke for the first time. “Mr. Huston, as you know, Chess was a metaphor in my works for the division between Art and Nature. With this I calculated all the moves the Art world would make for decades. What is gambling to you? Is gambling with life and power a statement of existentialism?”

To which Huston replied, “I’m forever and eternally bored. Only gambling is interesting, Marcel.”

Truffaut asked, “John, what is film?”

Huston let off a smoke ring from his cigar. “A projection of shadows on a rectangle.”

“Do you believe in God?” I asked.

“The truth is, I don’t profess any beliefs in any orthodox sense. It seems to me that the mystery of life is too great, too wide, too deep to do more than wonder at. Anything further would be, as far as I’m concerned, an impertinence,” said a gravelly Huston.

Just then, there was an electrical display at sea. The whole horizon lit up like a great artillery duel. The ape who had been chained to the tree in the back became frightened by the lightning and broke loose from his chains and came tearing into the dining area. He went for Truman who swerved to avoid him.

The ape tried to get a grip on Capote, but his big monkey paw went through the light form. Several agitated tropical parrots flew into the room and went for Hitchcock’s head. They were going for a sizable peck, but ended up getting their beaks stuck in the chair as they passed through Hitchcock ectoplasm.

Capote was buckling with laughter. This was all too good to be true. Then suddenly, amidst all this ruckus, Huston yelled, “CUT!” and the room went silent. The birds flew off and the ape lumbered out to the backyard. The guests had vanished. The table remained in a state of half-eaten food, spilled wine glasses, and clutter. Huston sat back peacefully and puffed away at a big Havana. Andrew came in with a bus tray to clean up all this cinematic ectoplasm.

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BOMB 13, Fall 1985

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013 Fall 1985