John Huston

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Hollywood icon John Huston shares his insights and experiences and brings Moyers behind the camera during the shoot of Annie. Throughout, viewers are introduced to the creative risk-taking and artistic fortitude common in giants of cinema.


BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. If, from all the studies scholars have done on creativity, we could draw a composite portrait of a creative person, it would be a caricature, not a profile, for no one person fits all the characteristics. But in our own interviews of creative people, we found them early developing a keen sensitivity to experience.

Like all of us, their first encounters with the world are made up of original discoveries and inventions. But long into life, they retain the capacity for childlike wonder. With every experience, they reinvent themselves. Travel becomes especially a way for the child in them to roam disguised as adult. They’re unpredictable and thus, slightly suspect of souls more at home with habit. What’s important to them is what they think of themselves.

So they’re unconventional, often discontented, not always virtuous, and they have a hard time explaining themselves. They work hard and day and night are the same to them. No more time-bound are they than their imagination is earth-bound. They take risks and are either lucky or bold enough to seize chance when it appears. And almost always, at some crucial moment in their lives, someone else reaches out and says, here take my hand. A composite and mythical but surprisingly close to the flesh and blood character of the real John Huston.

BILL MOYERS: Leonardo da Vinci said that an artist should paint as if he were in the presence of God. What should an actor, as an artist, do?

JOHN HUSTON: Well, the actor is in the presence of God. The audience is God to the actor, and he gets immediate approval or sometimes disapproval. He knows pretty much where he stands with God in the course of his performance. And that’s why actors prefer the theater.

BILL MOYERS: The live theater.

JOHN HUSTON: The live theater. Because God murmurs, and clucks, and applauds, and laughs, and gives him a running account of his opinion of the actor.

BILL MOYERS: In film, is the —

JOHN HUSTON: In film, the director has to take the place of the audience. So he’s the surrogate God, several steps down from the audience.

BILL MOYERS: With a little humility remaining? [laughter]

BILL MOYERS: John Huston speaks as a master of the form. He has directed 41 films, acted in 24. In one role, his was the voice of God. His credits as director include such classics as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Misfits,” “Fat City,” and “Wise Blood.” There have been some follies and some failures, too. But John Huston at 75, is still collecting new credits instead of resting on old ones.

JOHN HUSTON: Quiet, please.

BILL MOYERS: His latest picture is the musical “Annie.” At a cost of about $40 million dollars, “Annie” is one of the few extravaganzas not scrapped when Hollywood rolled back to smaller budgets.

JOHN HUSTON: Now suppose we go back to a close-up of Oliver, a little tighter, now let’s dolly when Oliver goes in. Dolly over here to the right and get our quartet set up. Let’s just try that. I just want to see how that looks. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And though comic strip characters and sentimental songs may seem thin stuff compared to vintage Huston, the man retains his habit, even in advanced age, of risking the unexpected rather than repeat the familiar.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve never seen a director use a television monitor before.

JOHN HUSTON: This is the first time I’ve ever used one.

BILL MOYERS: What does it enable you to do?

JOHN HUSTON: This way, you can see this is the way it’ll be on the screen. And so you know if a mistake is made in the operating of the camera. You can tell instantly. You should be able to. Sometimes you slip up.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, not in your business. You don’t slip up?

JOHN HUSTON: Well, rarely, rarely. It does happen occasionally. All right, places, please. On your marks. Sure. Playback.

PLAYING PRE-RECORDED SINGING: Clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow till there’s none. When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely, I just stick out my chin and grin and say, everybody, you too, Warbucks, sing! The sun will come out tomorrow, so you’ve got to hang on till tomorrow come what may. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow. You’re only a day away. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow. You’re only a day away.

OFF-SCREEN CREW MEMBER: Now all we have to do is arrange for a —

JOHN HUSTON: All we have to do is arrange so we can see George, too.


JOHN HUSTON: That looks very good.

OFF-SCREEN CREW MEMBER: All right, we have marks?

BILL MOYERS: Between pictures, Huston takes refuge here, on the west coast of Mexico, not far from Puerto Vallarta and the set where he filmed “Night of the Iguana.” Carlo Ponti once dropped in by helicopter, but most visitors approach from the sea. There are no roads. Houston spends much of his time here alone reading, painting, and watching for the gray whales, which occasionally pass by.

BILL MOYERS: How do you get an actor to be the character you, the director, want him to be?

JOHN HUSTON: You don’t do that. Not very often. The actor is chosen because he is that character. Now it may be some part of the actor that is that character, not the whole actor entirely that character, but there is something in him that he, himself, can conform to the part.

BILL MOYERS: But wasn’t it true that Humphrey Bogart didn’t particularly care for the role of Charlie Allnut when you began filming “The African Queen” and that slowly, deliberately, with gestures, you got him into the role?

JOHN HUSTON: No. I helped him. Knowing Bogart so well, and I saw Bogart as the role, as the part, and I was able to help him into it.


BILL MOYERS: Really with a gesture and an attitude. Bogart was confounded constantly and she was asking him to do things he didn’t know how to do. This poor little man that was way in over his head.
You promised you’d go down the river.


HUMPHERY BOGART: Miss, listen to me and try to understand. There’s death a dozen times over down the river. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but don’t blame me. Blame the Ulanga.

You promised.

Well, I’m taking my promise back! All right, Miss. You win, as the crocodiles will be glad to hear. Down the river we go.

Have some breakfast, Mr. Allnut.

HUMPHERY BOGART: Thanks for asking. And I don’t mind if I do, because it’ll be my last.

Oh no. Get up steam. Breakfast can wait.

HUMPHERY BOGART: Waiting for their supper, Miss.

BILL MOYERS: You never tried to tear an actor’s ego down?

JOHN HUSTON: Oh, never, never. That simply doesn’t work. An actor without an ego is a virgin without a petticoat, you know.

BILL MOYERS: Huston could write the book about actors and egos, petticoats, too. On film he’s been a prophet, a sadist, a tourist, a spy. In life he’s been a boxer, a hunter, a squire, a bum. For all his courtly manner and cultivated taste, he has managed through the years to outrage both friends and convention in every imaginable way. The one thing he has never lacked is an ego. He has won a camel race and squandered fortunes. He has married five wives and charmed countless others. He has never retired from the fray, or even sought the neutral corner. Always he has cast himself as a high-living, high-rolling bon vivant and daredevil.

He started early, reciting “Yankee Doodle” on the Texas Vaudeville circuit. He was three and a half. It was 1910, hot times for Vaudeville.

Theatricality and the vagabond life came with the genes. Walter Huston, John’s father, had a hit song and sketch routine with Bayonne Whipple, his second wife. They toured nearly every whistle stop in the country.

From his mother’s side, Huston inherited his love of fast horses, strong drink, and improbable odds. His grandfather once won some saloons in a gambling spree and invited everyone in town to belly up to the bar. His grandmother sold them to the first sober man she could find, for a dollar.

His mother was Rhea Gore Huston, a journalist. After his parents divorced, John shuttled between them, learning young the trouper’s life, a kaleidoscope of jobs, and towns, and changes.

JOHN HUSTON: Railroads. Going places on trains. From Texas all around the Middle West. My grandmother usually was with us and would take care of me at the apartment or the house, whatever it was that we’d have locally in one of these cities. And my mother worked on the newspapers. She was a restless soul. She was a good writer.

BILL MOYERS: But you think that some of your own interest in writing came from her.

JOHN HUSTON: No question, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And the peripatetic moving around didn’t seem to do any damage either, although many people say a child should stay in one place for the first 8 or 12 years.

JOHN HUSTON: I guess no rules obtain, do they?

BILL MOYERS: Rules seem rarely to apply to the most imaginative among us, as Huston’s life has witnessed. Other kids took piano lessons. He learned to play pool. He hated school and often refused to go. Instead, he taught himself. Painting, boxing, almost anything he set his mind to. For years his best subjects were the hair-brained and the hair-raising. One friend observed that Huston wasn’t so much courageous, just oblivious.

Through it all ran a thread of fantasy, spun from a restless imagination. His best friend was a creature he invented.

BILL MOYERS: Hoppa Deen played a very important part of your life.

JOHN HUSTON: Oh, he did. He was my companion when I didn’t have any other companions. Kids often do this, I’m told. He was enormous. He was as tall as a telegraph pole, and he had eyes the size of washtubs. He would follow me into a theater and sit down under a seat and I’d have to call him out. Sometimes ushers had to look for him.

BILL MOYERS: With their flashlights?

JOHN HUSTON: With their flashlights. (laughter)

BILL MOYERS: Looking for this mythical creature.


BILL MOYERS: But there is an example of the power of the imagination. You were a pretty good painter, weren’t you?

JOHN HUSTON: A good painter? I had considerable talent as a painter.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you not pursue that as an art?

When I was young, painting was an unrewarding profession and I got married and I was a painter when I got married. I intended to be a painter, but I couldn’t support a wife, so I started writing.

BILL MOYERS: What made you think you could make it as a writer?

JOHN HUSTON: I thought I’d just take a shot at it, and try my hand at writing. I had to do something, and I didn’t want to go to work, didn’t want to get a job and perform honest labor. So I wrote some short stories and sent them to my father, and my father showed them to Ring Lardner. He was doing a play of Ring Lardner’s at that time, “Elmer the Great.” So he showed them to Ring Lardner, and Ring Lardner showed them to Mencken.

BILL MOYERS: H.L. Mencken?

JOHN HUSTON: Yes. And Mencken published two of them.

BILL MOYERS: Did he comment on them?

JOHN HUSTON: Oh, yes. I won’t forget getting a letter from H.L. Mencken. I don’t think that the communication to Moses was as important than that.

BILL MOYERS: So much of life depends upon introductions and chance.

JOHN HUSTON: Ever so much.

BILL MOYERS: Meetings and friends.

JOHN HUSTON: Ever so much. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: All along your life, there has been somebody who touched you, or who helped you, introduced you.

JOHN HUSTON: Yes. The fortunate accident plays an enormous role in my life it has, certainly.

And yet you write enigmatically about bad luck. By the time you were 28, you say in your book, you’d had a run of bad luck. Let me read you the exact quote and get your reaction to it. You wrote, quote, “The sources of bad luck reside in the unconscious. We inflict upon ourselves a kind of self-punishment. At the time I only thought of myself as unlucky, under a dark cloud. But that fuming, dark cloud undoubtedly emanated from my own spirit.”

JOHN HUSTON: Yes. Well, in the first place, my world had rather broken up. The things, the original goals that I had set for myself were destroyed, ceased to be. Marriage broke up. That was inconceivable. I was responsible for its breaking up. And there was, of course, a self-accusation there. And whatever I turned my hand to, I failed at.

BILL MOYERS: Nothing seemed to work for you?

JOHN HUSTON: And nothing —

BILL MOYERS: Marriage?

JOHN HUSTON: And nothing seemed to work.

BILL MOYERS: Painting? Writing?

JOHN HUSTON: I’d pour myself out sort of halfway and then slide back into it, be overcome again.

Huston was in England when he hit bottom, singing in the streets for pennies and refusing to write home for help. In true family tradition, to save himself, he gambled.

And then in any case, there was a ring of the doorbell and a man with a telegram, and he gave me the envelope. I couldn’t even tip him. And it said I’d won 100 pounds consolation prize in the Irish sweepstake. Yes. Well, that 100 pounds, at that moment, was really the difference between life and death. And things began slowly to light up.

BILL MOYERS: With the winning of the sweepstakes?

JOHN HUSTON: With the winning.

BILL MOYERS: A kind of genesis. A spiritual rebirth.

JOHN HUSTON: That’s right. Yeah. There’s luck personified, isn’t it?

BILL MOYERS: That surge of luck brought Huston back to Hollywood, where Walter Huston proved a friend as well as a father. Doors opened. The younger Huston had talent and charm aplenty. The elder was eager to see them applied to something other than practical jokes and late night parties. Certainly affection between the two helped John through another marriage and a none too successful stint as a screenwriter. When John finally earned a chance to direct, Walter helped luck along by taking part.

BILL MOYERS: Just about everybody’s favorite from both your father’s acting career and your directing career, is the scene in which you directed him, in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” where he is dancing. Tell me about that scene. Did you have to talk it over with each other very much?

JOHN HUSTON: No, no. We talked about it briefly. People have often asked me, what was it like directing your father? I try to explain that on the set the director is the father figure. So he became my son, and I became my own grandfather. But he was a wonderful actor to direct. You’d give him some little, little thing and he would take it and go places with it.


HOWARD: Without me you two would die here more miserable than rats.

CURTIN: Leave him alone. Can’t you see that the old man’s nuts?

HOWARD: Nuts? Nuts am I? Let me tell you something, my two fine bedfellows. You’re so dumb, there’s nothing to compare you with. You’re dumber than the dumbest jackass. Look at each other, will you? Do you ever see anything like yourself for being dumb specimens? That’s how dumb. You don’t even see the riches you’re treading on with your own feet. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, don’t expect to find nuggets of molten gold. It’s rich, but not that rich. And here ain’t the place to dig. It comes from some place further up. Up there. Up there’s where we got to go. Up there.

BILL MOYERS: He did that dancing, didn’t he?

JOHN HUSTON: Oh, yes. This was entirely himself. I mean the idea was in the script, that he does a little dance on this ground with treasure in it. But the dance was his own composition.

BILL MOYERS: But it was your idea, if I understand, to have him take his teeth out for that movie.



JOHN HUSTON: To make him look older. He was still a very handsome, young-looking man and I had to give him some age. And it was possible he had some bridge work that I had him take out, and so his cheeks sunk in slightly, where they wouldn’t have before. It gave character.

BILL MOYERS: Did he object?

JOHN HUSTON: Slightly. He didn’t like the idea too much, but he saw the point.

BILL MOYERS: He was forced to be in public without his teeth.

BILL MOYERS: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was one of the first movies made almost entirely on location. It was a breakthrough in the business and Huston’s doing. The gypsy ways of childhood had evolved into an adult life Huston himself describes as a series of tangential, disparate episodes. Wives, children, everything else took a distant second seat. He had found his habitat. Leeches, killing temperatures, untrodden paths, and cannibal cooks sang his idea of a siren song.

JOHN HUSTON: I confess to having made films because they were in countries that I wanted to visit. That’s not all that praiseworthy, and hardly to be spoken of as part of the creative processes, is it?

BILL MOYERS: It seems to have worked for you on many occasions. “The African Queen,” “The Man Who Would Be King.”

JOHN HUSTON: Yes yes. Oh, they were also very good stories. Very, very good stories.

BILL MOYERS: Maybe there is a relationship between geography and the impulse.

BILL MOYERS: Sure. And those kind of stories require the location.



SPEAKER 2:What did he say, Billy?

SPEAKER 3:He say, now we shall see. You mortals wait down there.

BILL MOYERS: This story was Huston’s obsession for nearly 20 years. It’s Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” set in mythical Kafiristan. Huston filmed it in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It was one of his most exotic locations, and one of his most successful films.

DANIEL DRAVOT: You filthy sods, take their paws off me double-quick or, by God, I’ll have the guts for garters! I’ll pluck out your livers and feed them to the kites! How dare you lay your hands on me, Daniel Dravot, Esquire.

BILL MOYERS: In trying to create such moments as these, do you ever get blocked creatively? Do you get a barrier?

JOHN HUSTON: No. The thing is when you’re on a set, whether it’s on location or in a studio it’s still a set, and you haven’t got the approach, the proper approach to a scene, you must be careful not to spook, not to get the wind up, and just force things into position. The thing is to wait around until the idea comes, the right idea. And when it does, you recognize it.

BILL MOYERS: What can the camera do that the naked eye can’t?

JOHN HUSTON: There is nothing. The thing, rather is, what the things that the camera does are what the eye does also. For instance, the cut, as when you go from one image to another. This is a little experiment. Look from this point to that shell over there. Now look back. And you did it. You blinked.


JOHN HUSTON: You blinked, unconsciously. I watched to see. And you blinked and rested the eye. And you knew the relationship of these two points in space, so you didn’t have to turn your head with your eyes wide open. You used this interval to rest your eyes and cut from there to there.

BILL MOYERS: The blink was the cut?

JOHN HUSTON: The blink is the cut, sure.

BILL MOYERS: Did you really work hard at studying the techniques of the —

BILL MOYERS: No, I didn’t work at it. I just absorbed it.

BILL MOYERS: Now how does one do that?

JOHN HUSTON: Well, just as one who’s interested in painting, or writing, or anything. Just doing it.

BILL MOYERS: There isn’t a formula?

JOHN HUSTON: I don’t think there is any formula, no. Interest. If your interest is sufficiently alive, you are sufficiently observant.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the biggest risk you ever took? The biggest gamble?

JOHN HUSTON: I hesitate to say they were my gambles. They were rather my getting, or being instrumental in the producers, the people who were putting up the money, deciding to gamble, on such a picture as, let’s say, “Moby Dick,” which was the most difficult picture, physically speaking, I’ve ever made. And those were the worst seas in English history and boats went to the bottom, and boats were capsized, and we were dis-masted three times in the making of it. And we lost whales and the picture would grind to a stop. We’d have to lick our wounds and sew them up again, and it became very expensive. Not expensive in today’s terms.

BILL MOYERS: But a lot then.

JOHN HUSTON: Quite a lot then.


AHAB: I spent my last breath at sea! Oh, damn this whale!

JOHN HUSTON: There was some augury, some prophecy that Ahab would call them on beyond the frontiers of life.


AHAB: No more of this. Back to the Pequod. No more of this. No more of this.

JOHN HUSTON: This was him, lashed to the whale. As the whale turned, the arm moved and called for the crew to follow. And the crew did and were destroyed.


CREW: Do you see? Do you see? Ahab beckons. He’s dead, but he beckons.

BILL MOYERS: Was that really Gregory Peck going under?

JOHN HUSTON: Oh, indeed it was.

BILL MOYERS: Not a stunt man?

JOHN HUSTON: No. He refused to let a stunt man do it. It was very brave of Greg.

BILL MOYERS: Weren’t you risking —

JOHN HUSTON: Yes, but it was the last shot of the picture. (laughter)

This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.

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