John Marcellus Huston (August 5, 1906 – August 28, 1987) was an American film director, actor and sometime screenwriter. He is best known for having directed several great classic films, The Maltese Falcon,The Asphalt Jungle,The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,Key Largo, the The African Queen, and Prizzi’s Honor (for which his daughter, Anjelica, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). He won Best Director and Best Writing Academy Awards (Oscars) for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and was nominated for the Oscar at least a dozen additional times. His directing oeuvre, however, must be regarded as mixed because he directed a number of films that were of less than high quality, especially during his middle years.
Huston acted in many movies other than his own, sometimes memorably in good films and other times in films best described as forgettable, so his acting oeuvre must also be regarded as mixed. In addition to his genius as director, actor, and writer, he was known for drinking, gambling, womanizing, and generally being “an eccentric rebel of epic proportions,” as one commentator put it. Paul Newman once called Huston “the eccentric’s eccentric.” Huston’s career as one of the reigning luminaries of Hollywood lasted for five decades.
Huston was born in Nevada, Missouri, the son of the Canadian-born actor, Walter Huston (also an Academy Award winner, under John’s direction, for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and Rhea Gore, a reporter who traveled around the country looking for stories. John was of Scottish and Irish descent on his father’s side. An old story claims that the small town of his birth was won by John’s grandfather in a poker game.
John was the only child of the couple, and he began performing on stage with his vaudevillian father at age three. When he was seven his parents divorced, and after that he took turns traveling around the vaudeville circuit with his father, and the country with his mother on reporting excursions. He was a frail and sickly child, and was once placed in a sanitarium due to both an enlarged heart and kidney ailment. He recovered and quit school at age 14 to become a full-fledged boxer. Eventually he won the Amateur Lightweight Boxing Championship of California, winning 22 of 25 bouts. His trademark broken nose resulted from his boxing.
At age 18 John married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Harvey. He also made his first professional stage appearance in a leading role off-Broadway entitled “The Triumph of the Egg.” That same year, in April 1925, he made his Broadway debut with “Ruint.” The following November he was in another Broadway show “Adam Solitaire.” He quickly grew restless in both his marriage and acting and left both for a sojourn to Mexico where he became an expert horseman and cavalry officer, writing plays on the side. Later he returned to America and attempted reporting work for newspapers and magazines in New York by submitting short stories to them. At one point mogul Samuel Goldwyn Jr. even hired him as a screenwriter, and he also appeared in a few unbilled film roles. But he grew restless again and by 1932 left for London and Paris where he studied painting and sketching.
Huston returned to America in 1933 and played the title role in a production of “Abraham Lincoln.” His father Walter had played Lincoln on film for D.W. Griffith in 1930. To develop his writing skills John began collaborating on some scripts for Warner Brothers. Warners was impressed with his talents and signed him on as both screenwriter and director for the movie to be made of the Dashiell Hammett mystery The Maltese Falcon (1941). That movie classic made a superstar out of Humphrey Bogart, provided the film acting debut for Sidney Greenstreet, and is still considered by many critics and filmgoers to be one of the greatest detective films ever made; Huston’s film directorial debut was scarcely less auspicious than that of Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, but Huston’s lifetime output was considerably greater.
During this time Huston also wrote and staged a couple of Broadway plays. He also directed bad-girl Bette Davis and good girl Olivia de Havilland in the film melodrama In This Our Life (1942), and three of his Maltese Falcon stars (Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet) in the romantic war picture Across the Pacific (1942).
During World War II Huston served as a Signal Corps lieutenant. He went on to direct some film documentaries for the U.S. government, including Let There Be Light (1946), narrated by his father Walter. In 1946 Huston directed Jean-Paul Sartre’s experimental play “No Exit” on Broadway. The show ran less than a month and failed at the box-office, but did receive the New York Drama Critics Award as “best foreign play.”
Huston then stayed in Hollywood to write and/or direct some of the finest American cinema ever made including Key Largo (1948) and The African Queen (1951) (both with Bogart), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and Moulin Rouge (1952). Later films included Moby Dick (1956), The Unforgiven (1960), The Misfits (1961), Freud (1962), The Night of the Iguana (1964) and The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), but these later films, although sometimes well-regarded, did not rise to the level of his earlier work. He did, however, deal with topics that others would not touch at that time, including homosexuality and psychoanalysis.
The six-foot-two-inch, brown-eyed director also acted in a number of films, with distinction in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal for which he was nominated for the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor and in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as the film’s central heavy against Jack Nicholson; he also had a good role in The Wind and the Lion. He also appeared in numerous roles in films best forgotten, but they did pay his fee, giving him the wherewithal to pursue his interests; two of those parts were in the terrible films Candy (1968) and Myra Breckinridge (1970).
Move to Ireland, Then Mexico
As supporters of human rights, Huston, director William Wyler, and others formed the “Committee for the First Amendment” in 1947; its goal was to undermine the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in its investigations of Communist influence in the film and theater worlds. Huston was disgusted with the blacklist in Hollywood so he moved to Saint Clerans in Ireland. He became an Irish citizen along with his fourth wife, ballet dancer Enrica (Ricki) Soma. They had two children, including their daughter Anjelica, who went on to have a great Hollywood career of her own. Huston moved yet again to Mexico where he married (1972) and divorced (1977) his fifth and final wife, Celeste Shane.
In 1941, Huston was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Maltese Falcon. He was nominated again and won in 1948 for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which he also received the Best Director award.
Huston received 15 Oscar nominations in the course of his career. In fact, he is the oldest person ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar when, at 79 years old, he was nominated for Prizzi’s Honor (1985). He also has the unique distinction of directing both his father Walter and his daughter Anjelica in Oscar-winning performances (in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Prizzi’s Honor, respectively), making the Hustons the first family to have three generations of Academy Award winners.