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John Huston
John Huston - publicity.JPG
Huston in Chinatown (1974)
Born (1906-08-05)5 August 1906
Died 28 August 1987(1987-08-28) (aged 81)
Resting place Hollywood Forever Cemetery
  • Film director
  • screenwriter
  • actor
  • visual artist
Years active 1930–1987
  • Dorothy Harvey
    (m. 1925; div. 1933)
  • Lesley Black
    (m. 1937; div. 1945)
  • (m. 1946; div. 1950)
  • Enrica Soma
    (m. 1950; died 1969)
  • Celeste Shane
    (m. 1972; div. 1977)
Partner(s) Zoe Sallis
Children 5, including Anjelica, Tony, Danny, and Allegra Huston
Parent(s) Walter Huston
Rhea Gore
Awards See list
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1942–46
Rank Major
Unit Army Signal Corps

John Marcellus Huston (Listeni/ˈhjuːstən/ HEW-stən; August 5, 1906 – August 28, 1987) was an American film director, screenwriter, actor and visual artist. He wrote the screenplays for most of the 37 feature films he directed, many of which are today considered classics, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1961), Fat City (1972), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi's Honor (1985). During his 46-year career, Huston received 15 Academy Award nominations, winning twice. He also directed both his father, Walter Huston, and daughter, Anjelica Huston, to Oscar wins.

In his early years, Huston studied and worked as a fine art painter in Paris. He then moved to Mexico and began writing, first plays and short stories, and later working in Los Angeles as a Hollywood screenwriter, and was nominated for several Academy Awards writing for films directed by William Dieterle and Howard Hawks, among others. His directorial debut came with The Maltese Falcon, which despite its small budget became a commercial and critical hit; he would continue to be a successful, if iconoclastic, Hollywood director for the next 45 years. He explored the visual aspects of his films throughout his career, sketching each scene on paper beforehand, then carefully framing his characters during the shooting. While most directors rely on post-production editing to shape their final work, Huston instead created his films while they were being shot, with little editing needed. Some of Huston's films were adaptations of important novels, often depicting a "heroic quest," as in Moby Dick, or The Red Badge of Courage. In many films, different groups of people, while struggling toward a common goal, would become doomed, forming "destructive alliances," giving the films a dramatic and visual tension. Many of his films involved themes such as religion, meaning, truth, freedom, psychology, colonialism, and war.

While he had done some stage acting in his youth and had occasionally cast himself in bit parts in his own films, he primarily worked behind the camera until Otto Preminger cast him in 1963's The Cardinal, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He continued to take prominent supporting roles for the next two decades, including 1974's Chinatown (directed by Roman Polanski), and he lent his booming baritone voice as a voice actor and narrator to a number of prominent films. His last two films, 1985's Prizzi's Honor, and 1987's The Dead, filmed while he was in failing health at the end of his life, were both nominated for multiple Academy Awards. He died shortly after completing his last film.

Huston has been referred to as "a titan", "a rebel", and a "renaissance man" in the Hollywood film industry. Author Ian Freer describes him as "cinema's Ernest Hemingway"—a filmmaker who was "never afraid to tackle tough issues head on." He traveled widely, settling at various times in France, Mexico, and Ireland. Huston was a citizen of the U.S. by birth but renounced this to become an Irish citizen and resident in 1964. He later returned to the U.S., where he lived the rest of his life. For his contributions to the American film industry, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960.

Early life

John Huston was born on August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri. He was the only child of Rhea (née Gore) and Canadian-born Walter Huston. His father was an actor, initially in vaudeville, and later in films. His mother worked as a sports editor for various publications but stopped after John was born. Similarly, his father ended his stage acting career for steady employment as a civil engineer, although he returned to stage acting within a few years. He later became highly successful on both Broadway and then in motion pictures. He had Scottish, Scots-Irish, English and Welsh ancestry.

Huston's parents divorced in 1913 when he was six years old. For much of his childhood, he lived and studied in boarding schools. During summer vacations, he traveled separately with each of his parents  – with his father on vaudeville tours, and with his mother to horse races and other sports events. Young Huston benefited greatly from seeing his father act on stage, and he was later drawn to acting.

As a child, Huston was often ill; he was treated for an enlarged heart and kidney ailments. He recovered after an extended bedridden stay in Arizona and moved with his mother to Los Angeles, where he attended Abraham Lincoln High School. He dropped out after two years to become a professional boxer. By age 15 he was a top-ranking amateur lightweight boxer in California. He ended his brief boxing career after suffering a broken nose.

He also engaged in many interests, including ballet, English and French literature, opera, horseback riding, and studying painting at the Art Students League of Los Angeles. Living in Los Angeles, Huston became infatuated with the new film industry and motion pictures, as a spectator only. To Huston, "Charlie Chaplin was a god."

Huston returned to New York City to live with his father, who was acting in off-Broadway productions, and had a few small roles.

After a short period of acting on stage, and having undergone surgery, Huston travelled alone to Mexico. During two years there, among other adventures, he obtained a position as an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry. He returned to Los Angeles and married Dorothy Harvey, a girlfriend from high school. Their marriage lasted seven years (1926–1933).

Early career as writer

During his stay in Mexico, Huston wrote a play called Frankie and Johnny, based on the ballad of the same title. After selling it easily, he decided that writing would be a viable career, and he focused on it. His self-esteem was enhanced when H. L. Mencken, editor of the popular magazine American Mercury, bought two of his stories, "Fool" and "Figures of Fighting Men." During subsequent years, Huston's stories and feature articles were published in Esquire, Theatre Arts, and The New York Times. He also worked for a period on the New York Graphic. In 1931, when he was 25, he moved back to Los Angeles in hopes of writing for the blossoming film industry. The silent films had given way to "talkies", and writers were in demand. His father had earlier moved there and already gained success in a number of films.

Huston received a script editing contract with Samuel Goldwyn Productions but, after six months of receiving no assignments, quit to work for Universal Studios, where his father was a star. At Universal, he got a job in the script department, and began by writing dialogue for a number of films in 1932, including Murders in the Rue Morgue, A House Divided, and Law and Order. The last two also starred his father, Walter Huston. A House Divided was directed by William Wyler, who gave Huston his first real "inside view" of the filmmaking process during all stages of production. Wyler and Huston became close friends and collaborators on a number of leading films.

Huston described his first years as a writer in Hollywood as a "series of misadventures and disappointments". His brief career as a Hollywood writer ended suddenly when actress Tosca Roulien, wife of actor Raul Roulien, died in a car accident while Huston was driving unsafely. A coroner's jury absolved Huston of blame, but the incident left him "traumatized". He moved to London and Paris, living as a "drifter."

By 1937, the 31-year-old Huston returned to Hollywood intent on being a "serious writer." He married again, to Lesley Black. His first job was as scriptwriter with Warner Brothers Studio, and he formed his personal longterm goal to direct his own scripts. For the next four years, he co-wrote scripts for major films such as Jezebel, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Juarez, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, and Sergeant York (1941). He was nominated for Academy Awards for his screenplays for both Ehrlich and Sergeant York. Huston wrote that Sergeant York, which was directed by Howard Hawks, has "gone down as one of Howard's best pictures, and Gary Cooper had a triumph playing the young mountaineer."

Huston was recognized and respected as a screenwriter. He persuaded Warners to give him a chance to direct, under the condition that his next script also became a hit.

His next script was High Sierra (1941), to be directed by Raoul Walsh. The film became the hit Huston wanted. It also made Humphrey Bogart a star with his first major role, as a gunman on the run. Warners kept their end of the bargain and gave Huston his choice of subject.

Screenwriter and director

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

For his first directing assignment, Huston chose Dashiell Hammett's detective thriller, The Maltese Falcon, a film which failed at the box office in two earlier versions by Warners. However, studio head Jack L. Warner approved of Huston's treatment of Hammett's 1930 novel, and he stood by his word to let Huston choose his first subject.

Huston kept the screenplay close to the novel, keeping much of Hammett's dialogue, and directing it in an uncluttered style, much like the book's narrative. He did unusual preparation for his first directing job by sketching out each shot beforehand, including camera positions, lighting, and compositional scale, for such elements as closeups.

He especially benefited by selecting a superior cast, giving Humphrey Bogart the lead role. Bogart was happy to take the role, as he liked working with Huston. The supporting cast included other noted actors: Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet (his first film role), and his own father, Walter Huston. The film was given only a small B-movie budget, and received minimal publicity by Warners, as they had low expectations. The entire film was made in eight weeks for only $300,000.

Warners was surprised by the immediate enthusiastic response by the public and critics, who hailed the film as a "classic", with many ranking it as the "best detective melodrama ever made." Herald Tribune critic Howard Barnes called it a "triumph." Huston received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay. After this film, Huston directed all of his screenplays, except for one, Three Strangers (1946). In 1942, he directed two more hits, In This Our Life (1942), starring Bette Davis, and Across the Pacific, another thriller starring Humphrey Bogart.

Army years during World War II

In 1942 Huston served in the United States Army during World War II, making films for the Army Signal Corps. While in uniform with the rank of captain, he directed and produced three films that some critics rank as "among the finest made about World War II: Report from the Aleutians (1943), about soldiers preparing for combat; The Battle of San Pietro (1945), the story (censored by the Army) of a failure by America's intelligence agencies that resulted in many deaths, and Let There Be Light (1946), about psychologically damaged veterans. It was censored and suppressed for 35 years, until 1981.

Huston was promoted to the rank of major and received the Legion of Merit award for "courageous work under battle conditions." All of his films made for the Army were "controversial", and were either not released, were censored, or banned outright, as they were considered "demoralizing" to soldiers and the public. Years later, after Huston moved to Ireland, his daughter, actress Anjelica Huston, recalled that the "main movies we watched were the war documentaries."

Huston performed an uncredited rewrite of Anthony Veiller's screenplay for The Stranger (1946), a film he was to have directed. When Huston became unavailable, the film's star, Orson Welles, directed instead; Welles had the lead role of a high-ranking Nazi fugitive who settles in New England under an assumed name.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Huston's next picture, which he wrote, directed, and briefly appeared in as an American asked to "help out a fellow American, down on his luck", was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). It would become one of the films that established his reputation as a leading filmmaker. The film, also starring Humphrey Bogart, was the story of three drifters who band together to prospect for gold. Huston gave a supporting role to his father, Walter Huston.

Warners studio was initially uncertain what to make of the film. They had allowed Huston to film on location in Mexico, which was a "radical move" for a studio at the time. They also knew that Huston was gaining a reputation as "one of the wild men of Hollywood." In any case, studio boss Jack L. Warner initially "detested it." But whatever doubts Warners had were soon removed, as the film achieved widespread public and critical acclaim. Hollywood writer James Agee called it "one of the most beautiful and visually alive movies I have ever seen." Time magazine described it as "one of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk." Huston won Oscars for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; his father won for Best Supporting Actor. The film also won other awards in the U.S. and overseas.

Decades later, Film Comment magazine devoted four pages to the film in its May–June 1980 edition, with author Richard T.

Key Largo (1948)

Also in 1948, Huston directed Key Largo, again starring Humphrey Bogart. It was the story about a disillusioned veteran who clashes with gangsters on a remote Florida key. It co-starred Lauren Bacall, Claire Trevor, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore. The film was an adaptation of the stage play by Maxwell Anderson. Some viewers complained that it was still overly stage-bound. But the "outstanding performances" by all the actors saved the film, and Claire Trevor won an Oscar for best supporting actress. Huston was annoyed that the studio cut several scenes from the final release without his agreement. That, along with some earlier disputes, angered Huston enough that he left the studio when his contract expired.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

In 1950 he wrote and directed The Asphalt Jungle, a film which broke new ground by depicting criminals as somewhat sympathetic characters. Huston gave "deep attention" to the plot, involving a large jewelry theft, examining the minute, step-by-step details and difficulties each of the characters had of carrying it out. Some critics felt that, by this technique, Huston had achieved an almost "documentary" style.

Film critic Andrew Sarris considered it to be "Huston's best film", and the film that made Marilyn Monroe a recognized actress. Sarris also notes the similar themes in many of Huston's films, as exemplified by this one: "His protagonists almost invariably fail at what they set out to do." This theme was also expressed in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where the group foundered on their own greed.

It starred Sterling Hayden and Sam Jaffe, a personal friend of Huston. Marilyn Monroe had her first serious role in this film. Huston said, "it was, of course, where Marilyn Monroe got her start." Monroe said Huston was the first genius she had ever met; and he made her feel that she finally had a chance of becoming a professional actress:

Even though my part was a minor one, I felt as if I were the most important performer in the picture—when I was before the camera. This was because everything I did was important to the director.

The film succeeded at the box office, and Huston was again nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay and best director, along with winning the Screen Directors Guild Award. This became a model for many similar movies by other filmmakers.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Huston's next film, The Red Badge of Courage (1951), was of a completely different subject: war and its effect on soldiers. While in the army during World War II, he became interested in Stephen Crane's classic American Civil War novel of the same title. For the starring role, Huston chose World War II hero Audie Murphy to play the young Union soldier who deserts his company out of fear, but later returns to fight alongside them. MGM was concerned that the movie seemed too antiwar for the postwar period. Without Huston's input, they cut down the running time of the film from eighty-eight minutes to sixty-nine, added narration, and deleted what Huston felt was a crucial scene.

The movie did poorly at the box office. Huston suggests that it was possibly because it "brought war very close to home." Huston recalls that at the preview showing, before the film was halfway through, "near a third of the audience got up and walked out of the theater." Despite the "butchering" and weak public response, film historian Michael Barson describes the movie as "a minor masterpiece."

At the same time, the film was also the cause of a growing feud between MGM founder Louis B. Mayer and Producer Dore Schary to the point where Huston felt like stepping down to avoid growing the conflict. However, Mayer encouraged Huston to stay on telling him to fight for the picture regardless of what he thought of it.

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen, Bogart
Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951)

Before The Red Badge of Courage opened in theaters, Huston was already in Africa shooting The African Queen (1951), a story based on C. S. Forester's popular novel. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in a combination of romance, comedy and adventure. Barson calls it "one of the most popular Hollywood movies of all time." The film's producer, Sam Spiegel, urged Huston to change the ending to allow the protagonists to survive, instead of dying. Huston agreed, and the ending was rewritten. It became Huston's most successful film financially, and "it remains one of his finest works." Huston was nominated for two Academy Awards—Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Bogart, meanwhile, won his only Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Charlie Allnut.

Hepburn wrote about her experiences shooting the film in her memoir, The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and almost lost my mind. Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the film White Hunter, Black Heart, based on Peter Viertel's novel of the same name, which tells a fictional version of the making of the film.

House Committee on Un-American Activities period

In 1952 Huston moved to Ireland as a result of his "disgust" at the "witch-hunt" and the "moral rot" he felt was created by investigation and hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), which had affected many of his friends in the movie industry. Huston had, with friends including director William Wyler and screenwriter Philip Dunne, established the "Committee for the First Amendment", as a response to the ongoing government investigations into communists within the film industry. The HCUA was calling numerous filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors to testify about any past affiliations.

Moby Dick (1956)

Huston took producing, writing, and directing credits for his next two films: Moulin Rouge (1952); and Beat the Devil (1953). Moby Dick (1956), however, was written by Ray Bradbury, although Huston had his name added to the screenplay credit after the completion of the project. Although Huston had personally hired Bradbury to adapt Herman Melville's novel into a screenplay, Bradbury and Huston did not get along during pre-production. Bradbury later dramatized their relationship in the short story "Banshee". When this was adapted as an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, Peter O'Toole played the role based on John Huston. Bradbury wrote more poems, essays, and stories on his time in Ireland, but was reluctant to write a book because he did not want to gossip about Huston. It was not until after he read Katharine Hepburn's memoir, The Making of the African Queen, that he decided that he could write "a book which is fair, which presents the Huston that I loved along with the one that I began to fear on occasion." He published Green Shadows, White Whale, a novel about his time in Ireland with Huston, almost 40 years after he wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick.

Huston had been planning to film Herman Melville's Moby-Dick for the previous ten years, and originally thought the starring role of Captain Ahab would be an excellent part for his father, Walter Huston. After his father died in 1950, Huston chose Gregory Peck to play the role. The movie was filmed over a three-year period on location in Ireland, where Huston was living. The fishing village of New Bedford, Massachusetts was recreated along the waterfront; the sailing ship in the film was fully constructed to be seaworthy; and three 100-foot whales were built out of steel, wood, and plastic. In the film, Huston's voice was dubbed for the voice of actor Joseph Tomelty and a Pequod lookout. But the film failed at the box office. Critics such as David Robinson suggested that the movie lacked the "mysticism of the book" and thereby "loses its significance."

The Misfits (1961)

Marilyn Monroe Misfits
Marilyn Monroe (center), Clark Gable (right), filming in 1961 for The Misfits

Of Huston's next five films, only The Misfits (1961), gained critical approval. Critics have since noted the "retrospective atmosphere of doom" which is associated with the film. Clark Gable, the star, died of a heart attack a few weeks after the filming was completed; Marilyn Monroe never finished another film, and died a year later after being suspended during the filming of Something's Got to Give; and costars Montgomery Clift (1966) and Thelma Ritter (1969) also died over the next decade. But two of the Misfits stars, Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, lived another 50 years. During the filming, Monroe was sometimes taking prescribed drugs, which led to her arriving late on the set. Monroe also sometimes forgot her lines. Monroe's personal problems eventually led to the breakup of her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, the scriptwriter, "virtually on set." Miller dramatized the making of The Misfits in his final play, Finishing the Picture, where Huston is represented as the director. Huston later commented about this period in Monroe's career: "Marilyn was on her way out. Not only of the picture, but of life."

Freud: the Secret Passion (1962)

He followed The Misfits with Freud: The Secret Passion, a film quite different from most of his others. Besides directing, he also narrates portions of the story. Film historian Stuart M. Kaminsky notes that Huston presents Sigmund Freud, played by Montgomery Clift, "as a kind of savior and messiah", with an "almost Biblical detachment."

Huston's Night of the Iguana set on Mismaloya Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

For his next film, Huston again traveled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, after meeting an architect, Guillermo Wulff, who owned property and businesses in the town. The filming of The Night of the Iguana took place in a beach cove called Mismaloya, about thirty minutes south of town. Huston adapted the stage play by Tennessee Williams. The film stars Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, and was nominated for several Academy Awards. The production attracted intense worldwide media attention, due to Burton bringing his celebrity mistress, actress Elizabeth Taylor (who was still married to singer Eddie Fisher at the time) to Puerto Vallarta. Huston liked the town where filming took place so much that he bought a house near there, as did Burton and Taylor. Guillermo Wulff and Huston became friends and always spent time together while Huston was in town, more frequently at Wulff's El Dorado Restaurant on Los Muertos Beach.

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

Producer Dino De Laurentis traveled to Ireland to ask Huston to direct The Bible: In the Beginning. Although De Laurentis had ambitions for a broader story, he realized that the subject could not be adequately covered and limited the story to less than the first half of the Book of Genesis. Huston enjoyed directing the film, as it gave him a chance to indulge his love of animals. Besides directing he also played the role of Noah and the voice of God. The Bible earned rentals of $15 million in North America, making it the second highest-grossing film of 1966. However, because of its bloated budget of $18 million (which made it the most expensive movie of Huston's career), 20th Century Fox ended up losing $1.5 million.

Involvement with the Irish film industry

While working on Casino Royale (1967), Huston took interest in the Irish film industry, which had historically struggled to attain domestic or international success. There were rumours that he would buy Ireland's premiere film location, Ardmore Studios in Bray, County Wicklow. In 1967, Huston gave Taoiseach Jack Lynch a tour of Ardmore and asked to form a committee to help foster a productive Irish film industry. Huston served on the resulting committee with Irish filmmakers and journalists.

Lynch also ultimately agreed to offer tax breaks to foreign production companies if they shot on location in Ireland, and signed the Film Act of 1970.

Huston was interviewed in Irish journalist Peter Lennon's Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), where he argued that it was more important for Irish filmmakers to make films in Ireland than for foreign production companies to make international films.

In 1969, he shot Sinful Davey in Ireland using a mixed Irish and British cast.

Fat City (1972)

After several films that were not well received, Huston returned to critical acclaim with Fat City. Based on Leonard Gardner's 1969 novel of the same name, it was about an aging, washed-up boxer in Stockton, California, trying to get his name back on the map. It also featured an amateur boxer trying to find success in boxing. The film was nominated for several awards. It starred Stacy Keach, a young Jeff Bridges, and Susan Tyrrell; she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Roger Ebert stated Fat City was one of Huston's best films, giving it four out of four stars.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Perhaps Huston's most highly regarded film of the 1970s, The Man Who Would Be King was both a critical and commercial success. Huston had been planning to make this film since the '50s, originally with his friends Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. Eventually, the lead roles went to Sean Connery and Michael Caine. The movie was filmed on location in North Africa. The film was praised for its use of old-fashioned escapism and entertainment. Steven Spielberg has cited the film as one of the inspirations for his film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Wise Blood (1979)

After filming The Man Who Would Be King, Huston took his longest break between directing films. He returned with an offbeat film based on the novel Wise Blood. Here, Huston showed his skills as a storyteller, and boldness when it came to difficult subjects such as religion.

Under the Volcano (1984)

Huston's last film set in Mexico stars Albert Finney as an ambassador during the beginnings of World War II. Adapted from the 1947 novel by Malcolm Lowry, the film was highly praised by critics, most notably for Finney's acting. The film was a success on the independent circuit.

The Dead (1987)

John Huston's final film is an adaptation of the classic short story by James Joyce. This may have been one of Huston's most personal films, due to his citizenship in Ireland and his passion for classic literature. Huston directed most of the film from a wheelchair, as he needed an oxygen tank to breathe during the last few months of his life. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and was praised by critics. Roger Ebert eventually placed it in his Great Movies list; a section of movies he claimed to be some of the best ever made. Huston died nearly four months before the film's release date. In the 1996 RTÉ documentary John Huston: An t-Éireannach, Anjelica Huston said that "it was very important for my father to make that film." She contends that Huston did not think that it was going to be his last film, but that it was his love letter to Ireland and the Irish.

As an actor

Earlier in his career, he had played bit parts in his own films, such as the unnamed rich American in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Towards the end of his career, Huston began to play more prominent roles in films by other directors. In 1963, director Otto Preminger asked if he would portray a Boston prelate in The Cardinal, and, writes author Philip Kemp, he "virtually stole the picture." He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. He had a little participation (as did many others) in 1967's Casino Royale as actor and director. He acted in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) as the film's master villain, and as President Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of state John Hay in The Wind and the Lion. Huston enjoyed acting and denied that he took it all that seriously.

Huston said he did not regard himself very highly as an actor, saying he was proud only of his performance in Chinatown. But he had also greatly enjoyed acting in Winter Kills. He also played the Lawgiver in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Huston is famous to a generation of fans of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth stories as the voice of the wizard Gandalf in the Rankin/Bass animated adaptations of The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980).

Huston played the lead in Orson Welles's last completed film, The Other Side of the Wind. In it he played an aging filmmaker named Jake Hannaford who was having great problems getting financing for his latest uncompleted film. Much of his portrayal was filmed in the spring of 1974 in Carefree, Arizona, at Southwestern Studio and a nearby mansion. But due to political and financial complications, The Other Side of the Wind was not released until the fall of 2018.

Movie themes

Huston's films were insightful about human nature and human predicaments. They also sometimes included scenes or brief dialogue passages that were remarkably prescient concerning environmental issues that came to public awareness in the future, in the period starting about 1970; examples include The Misfits and The Night of the Iguana (1964).

According to Kaminsky, Huston's stories were often about "failed quests" by a group of different people. The group would persist in the face of poor odds, doomed at the outset by the circumstances created by an impossible situation. However, some members of the doomed group usually survive, those who are "cool" and "intelligent", or someone who "will sacrifice everything for self-understanding and independence". Those types of characters are exemplified by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, and Montgomery Clift in Freud.

Another type of quest often seen in Huston's films involves a pair of potential lovers trying to face a hostile world. Flint adds, however, that he "bucked Hollywood's penchant for happy endings", and many of his stories ended with "love unsatisfied".

Film historian James Goodwin adds that in virtually all of his films, there is some type of "heroic quest – even if it involves questionable motives or destructive alliances". In addition, the quest "is preferable to the spiritless, amoral routines of life". As a result, his best films, according to Flint, "have lean, fast-paced scripts and vibrant plots and characterizations, and many of them deal ironically with vanity, avarice and unfulfilled quests".

In the opinion of critics Tony Tracy and Roddy Flynn, "... what fundamentally fascinated Huston was not movies per se – that is, form – but the human condition ... and literature offered a road map for exploring that condition." In many of his films, therefore, he tried to express his interest by developing themes involving some of the "grand narratives" of the twentieth century, such as "faith, meaning, truth, freedom, psychology, colonialism, war and capitalism".

To Jameson, all of Huston's films are adaptations, and he believes that through his films there was a "cohesive world-view, not only thematically but also stylistically; there is the Huston look". The "Huston look" was also noted by screenwriter James Agee, who adds that this "look proceeds from Huston's sense of what is natural to the eye and his delicate, simple feeling for space relationships." In any case, notes Flint, Huston took "uncommon care to preserve the writer's styles and values ... and sought repeatedly to transpose the interior essence of literature to film with dramatic and visual tension", as he did in Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, and Under the Volcano.

Religion is also a theme that runs through many of Huston's films. In The Night of the Iguana, Kaminsky notes how Richard Burton, while preaching a sermon to his congregation, seems "lost, confused, his speech is gibberish", and leads his congregation to turn away from him. In other films, adds Kaminsky, religion is seen as "part of the fantasy world", that the actors must overcome to survive physically or emotionally. "These religious zealots counsel a move away from the pleasure of the world and human love, a world that Huston believes in," concludes Kaminsky. Such religious themes were also seen in The Bible, and Wise Blood, for example.

To Barson, however, Huston was among the "least consistent" filmmakers, although he concludes that he was one of the "most interesting directors of the past sixty years". Throughout his long career, many of his films did poorly and were criticized as a result. To a writer in 1972 he commented, "Criticism isn't a new experience for me. Pictures that are now thought of as, forgive the term, classics, weren't all that well thought of at the time they came out." After an interview a few years before he died, the reporter writes that "Huston said he missed the major studio era when people savored making movies, not just money."

According to Roger Ebert, in his review of Fat City, "His fascination with underdogs and losers. The characters in Huston movies hardly ever set out to achieve what they're aiming for. Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, Huston's first film, ends up minus one partner and one woman he thought he could trust. Everyone is a loser in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the gold blows back into the dust and is lost in it. Ahab, in Moby Dick. Marlon Brando's career Army officer in Reflections in a Golden Eye, even Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen – they all fall short of their plans. The African Queen does have a happy ending, but it feels tacked-on and ridiculous, and the Queen destroys itself in destroying the German steamer. So this [Fat City] is a theme we find in Huston's work, but rarely does he fit it to characters and a time and place so well as in Fat City. Maybe that's because Huston knows the territory: he was a professional boxer himself for a while, and not a very good one."

Directing techniques

John has meant a great deal in my life. Nobody would have heard of me if it hadn't been for him. Working with John ten years later is very good. He's a different kind of director than the people I've been working with. He's an artist with a camera—he sees it like a painter.

George Stevens, Jr. notes that while many directors rely on post-production editing to shape their final work, Huston instead created his films while they were being shot: "I don't even know the editor of my films most of the time," Huston said. Actor Michael Caine also observed the same technique: "Most directors don't know what they want so they shoot everything they can think of — they use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper." Danny Huston confirmed as much when he recalled what Huston said to him as the then-youngster was fooling around with a Kodak Super 8: "and I was shooting all these various things. He said, 'Stop it, stop doing that.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'When you go from left to right and right to left, what do you do?' So I looked from left to right and right to left. I said, 'I give up. What do I do?' He said, 'You blink. That's a cut.'"

Film writer Peter Flint pointed out other benefits to Huston's style: "He shot economically, eschewing the many protective shots favored by timid directors, and edited cerebrally so that financial backers would have trouble trying to cut scenes." Huston shot most of his films on location, working "intensely" six days a week, and "on Sundays, played equally intense poker with the cast and crew."

According to Kaminsky, much of Huston's vision probably came from his early experience as a painter on the streets of Paris. While there, he studied art and worked at it for a year and a half. Huston continued painting as a hobby for most of his life. Kaminsky also notes that most of Huston's films "reflected this prime interest in the image, the moving portrait and the use of color." Huston explored the use of "stylistic framing", especially well-planned close-ups, in much of his directing. In his first film, The Maltese Falcon, for instance, Huston sketched out all of his scenes beforehand, "like canvases of paintings". Anjelica Huston recalled that even for his subsequent films, he sketched storyboards "constantly... it was a form of study, and my father was a painter, a very good one... there was an extremely developed sensory quality about my father, he didn't miss a trick."

Personal life and death

To producer George Stevens, Jr., Huston symbolized "intellect, charm and physical grace" within the film industry. He adds, "He was the most charismatic of the directors I knew, speaking with a soothing, melodic voice that was often mimicked, but was unique to him."

Huston loved the outdoors, especially hunting while living in Ireland. Among his life's adventures before becoming a Hollywood filmmaker, he had been an amateur boxer, reporter, short-story writer, portrait artist in Paris, a cavalry rider in Mexico, and a documentary filmmaker during World War II. Besides sports and adventure, he enjoyed hard liquor and relationships with women. Stevens describes him as someone who "lived life to its fullest". Barson even suggests that Huston's "flamboyant life" as a rebel would possibly make for "an even more engaging tale than most of his movies".

His daughter, Anjelica Huston, noted that he did not like Hollywood, and "especially despised Beverly Hills ... he thought it was just fake from the ground up. He didn't like any of that; he was not intrigued or attracted by it." She noted that, in contrast, "he liked to be in the wild places; he liked animals as much as he liked people."

It has been suggested that John Huston was an atheist, but his religious beliefs are hard to determine. He claimed that he had no orthodox religion. His daughter, Anjelica, was raised Roman Catholic.

Huston married five times. His wives were:

  1. Dorothy Harvey (1906–1982) — This youthful marriage ended after seven years (October 17, 1926 – January 10, 1933).
  2. Lesley Black  — (m. 1937; div. 1945)
  3. Evelyn Keyes (1916–2008) – (m. 1946; div. 1950) – They adopted a son Pablo, who John discovered orphaned in Mexico.
  4. Enrica Soma (1929–1969) – (m. 1950; died 1969) - Huston & Soma were married until she died at age 39 in a car accident. They had two children: Walter Antony "Tony" Huston (b. 1950), screenwriter and attorney, father of actor Jack Huston; and a daughter, actress Anjelica Huston (b. 1951). During the marriage, Huston fathered a son, Danny Huston (b. 1962), with author Zoe Sallis. Danny became an actor.
  5. Celeste Shane – (m. 1972; div. 1977) – In his autobiography, An Open Book, Huston refers to her as a "crocodile", and says that if he had his life to do over, he would not have married a fifth time.

His friends included George Hodel, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway. Humphrey Bogart was one of his best friends, and Huston delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

Grave of John Huston and his mother, Rhea, at Hollywood Forever

Huston visited Ireland in 1951 and stayed at Luggala, County Wicklow, the home of Garech Browne, a member of the Guinness family. He visited Ireland several times afterwards and on one of these visits, he purchased and restored a Georgian home, St Clerans, of Craughwell, County Galway. Between 1960 and 1971 he served as Master of Fox Hounds (MFH) of the County Galway Hunt, whose kennels are at Craughwell. He renounced his U.S. citizenship and became an Irish citizen in 1964. His daughter Anjelica attended school in Ireland at Kylemore Abbey for a number of years. A film school is now dedicated to him on the NUI Galway campus.

Huston was an accomplished painter who wrote in his autobiography, "Nothing has played a more important role in my life". As a young man, he studied at the Smith School of Art in Los Angeles but dropped out within a few months. He later studied at the Art Students League of New York. He painted throughout his life and had studios in each of his homes. He had owned a wide collection of art, including a notable collection of Pre-Columbian art.

A heavy smoker, Huston was diagnosed with emphysema in 1978. By the last year of his life he could not breathe for more than twenty minutes without needing oxygen. He died on August 28, 1987, in his rented home in Middletown, Rhode Island, from pneumonia as a complication of lung disease, aged 81. Huston is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood with his mother.


The moving image collection of John Huston is held at the Academy Film Archive. The film material at the Academy Film Archive is complemented by production files, photographs, and personal correspondence found in the John Huston papers, 1932–1981, at the academy's Margaret Herrick Library. The film archive preserved several of John Huston's home movies in 2001.


Year Title Functioned as Notes
Director Writer Producer
1941 The Maltese Falcon Yes Yes No
1942 In This Our Life Yes No No
Across the Pacific Yes No No Replaced for the last two weeks of filming by Vincent Sherman
1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Yes Yes No
Key Largo Yes Yes No Co-writer with Richard Brooks
1949 We Were Strangers Yes Yes Yes Co-writer with Peter Viertel
1950 The Asphalt Jungle Yes Yes Yes Co-writer with Ben Maddow
1951 The Red Badge of Courage Yes Yes No Co-writer with Albert Band
The African Queen Yes Yes Yes Co-writer with James Agee
1952 Moulin Rouge Yes Yes Yes Co-writer with Anthony Veiller
1953 Beat the Devil Yes Yes No Co-writer with Truman Capote
1956 Moby Dick Yes Yes No Co-writer with Ray Bradbury
1957 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Yes Yes Yes Co-writer with John Lee Mahin
1958 The Barbarian and the Geisha Yes No No
The Roots of Heaven Yes No No
1960 The Unforgiven Yes No No
1961 The Misfits Yes No Yes
1962 Freud: The Secret Passion Yes No No
1963 The List of Adrian Messenger Yes No No
1964 The Night of the Iguana Yes Yes No Co-writer with Anthony Veiller
1966 The Bible: In the Beginning... Yes No No
1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye Yes No Yes
Casino Royale Yes No No Co-director with Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish & Val Guest
1969 Sinful Davey Yes No Yes
A Walk with Love and Death Yes No Yes
1970 The Kremlin Letter Yes Yes Yes Co-writer with Gladys Hill
1972 Fat City Yes No Yes
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean Yes No No
1973 The Mackintosh Man Yes No Yes
1975 The Man Who Would Be King Yes Yes No Co-writer with Gladys Hill
1976 Independence Yes No No Short film
1979 Wise Blood Yes No No
1980 Phobia Yes No No
1981 Escape to Victory Yes No No
Let There Be Light Yes No No Documentary, uncredited; completed 1946-48
1982 Annie Yes No No
1984 Under the Volcano Yes No No
1985 Prizzi's Honor Yes No No
1987 The Dead Yes No No

As screenwriter only

Year Title Director Notes
1930 The Storm William Wyler Co-writer with Charles Logue, Langdon McCormick, Tom Reed & Wells Root
1931 A House Divided Co-writer with John B. Clymer, Olive Edens & Dale Van Every
1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue Robert Florey Co-writer with Tom Reed & Dale Van Every
Law and Order Edward L. Cahn Co-writer with Tom Reed & Richard Schayer
1935 Death Drives Through Co-writer with Katherine Strueby & Gordon Wellesley
It Happened in Paris Robert Wyler Co-writer with Katherine Strueby & H. F. Maltby
1938 The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse Anatole Litvak Co-writer with John Wexley
Jezebel William Wyler Co-writer with Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel & Robert Buckner
1939 Juarez William Dieterle Co-writer with Aeneas MacKenzie & Wolfgang Reinhardt
1940 Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet Co-writer with Norman Burnstine & Heinz Herald
1941 High Sierra Raoul Walsh Co-writer with W. R. Burnett
Sergeant York Howard Hawks Co-writer with Abem Finkel, Harry Chandler & Howard Koch
1946 The Killers Robert Siodmak Uncredited rewrites
Three Strangers Jean Negulesco Co-writer with Howard Koch
The Stranger Orson Welles Uncredited rewrites
1988 Mr. North Danny Huston Co-writer with Janet Roach & James Costigan

As an actor

Year Title Role Notes
1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Man in White Suit Uncredited
1949 We Were Strangers Señor Muñoz
1956 Moby Dick Ship's Lookout
1962 Freud: The Secret Passion Narrator (voice)
The List of Adrian Messenger Lord Ashton
1963 The Cardinal Cardinal Lawrence Glennon
1966 The Bible: In the Beginning Noah / God / Narrator (voice)
The Legend of Marilyn Monroe Narrator (voice)
1967 Casino Royale M
1968 Candy Dr. Arnold Dunlap
1969 De Sade The Abbe
A Walk with Love and Death Robert the Elder
1970 The Kremlin Letter Admiral
Myra Breckinridge Buck Loner
1971 The Bridge in the Jungle Sleigh
The Deserter General Miles
Man in the Wilderness Captain Henry
1972 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean Grizzly Adams
1973 Battle for the Planet of the Apes The Lawgiver
1974 Chinatown Noah Cross
1975 Breakout Harris Wagner
The Wind and the Lion Secretary of State John Hay
1976 Sherlock Holmes in New York Professor Moriarty
1977 The Rhinemann Exchange Ambassador Henderson Granville TV miniseries
Tentacles Ned Turner
The Hobbit Gandalf (voice)
Angela Hogan
1978 The Greatest Battle Sean O'Hara
The Bermuda Triangle Edward Marvin
The Word Nathan Randall TV miniseries
1979 The Visitor Jerzy Colsowicz
Winter Kills Pa Kegan
Wise Blood Grandfather
Jaguar Lives! Ralph Richards
1980 The Return of the King Gandalf (voice) TV movie
Head On Clarke Hill
1982 Cannery Row Narrator (voice)
Annie Actor on Radio Uncredited
1983 Lovesick Larry Geller, M.D.
A Minor Miracle Father Cardenas
1984 Epic Narrator (voice) US version only
1985 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Carlos / Narrator (voice) TV series; Episode: "Pilot"
The Black Cauldron Narrator (voice)
1986 Momo Meister Hora
1987 Mister Corbett's Ghost The Collector TV movie
2018 The Other Side of the Wind Jake Hannaford Filmed between 1974 and 1975

Awards and honors

Statue of Huston, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Huston received 15 Oscar nominations in the course of his career and 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 won two Oscars, for directing and writing the screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Huston also won a Golden Globe for that film. He received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1983, and the Career Achievement Award from the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in 1984.

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. He also directed her in Sinful Davey in 1969.

In addition, he also directed 13 other actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Sydney Greenstreet, Claire Trevor, Sam Jaffe, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, José Ferrer, Colette Marchand, Deborah Kerr, Grayson Hall, Susan Tyrrell, Albert Finney, Jack Nicholson and William Hickey.

In 1960, Huston was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to motion pictures.

In 1965, Huston received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.

In 1981, his film Escape to Victory was nominated for the Golden Prize at the 12th Moscow International Film Festival.

A statue of Huston, sitting in his director's chair, stands in Plaza John Huston in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Major association awards

Academy Awards

Year Work Category Result
1941 Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet Best Writing, Original Screenplay Nominated
1942 The Maltese Falcon Best Writing, Screenplay Nominated
Sergeant York Best Writing, Original Screenplay Nominated
1949 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Best Director Won
Best Writing, Screenplay Won
1951 The Asphalt Jungle Best Director Nominated
Best Writing, Screenplay Nominated
1952 The African Queen Best Director Nominated
Best Writing, Screenplay Nominated
1953 Moulin Rouge Best Director Nominated
1958 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Nominated
1964 The Cardinal Best Supporting Actor Nominated
1976 The Man Who Would Be King Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material Nominated
1986 Prizzi's Honor Best Director Nominated

Golden Globes

Year Work Category Result
1949 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Best Director Won
1951 The Asphalt Jungle Nominated
Best Screenplay Nominated
1963 Freud Best Director Nominated
1964 The Cardinal Best Supporting Actor Won
1965 The Night of the Iguana Best Director Nominated
1975 Chinatown Best Supporting Actor Nominated
1986 Prizzi's Honor Best Director Won

BAFTA Awards

Year Work Category Result
1975 Chinatown Best Supporting Actor Nominated
1980 N/A BAFTA Fellowship Won

Independent Spirit Awards

Year Work Category Result
1988 The Dead Best Director Won

Critics awards

Year Association Work Category Result
1948 New York Film Critics Circle The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Best Director Won
National Board of Review Best Screenplay Won
1950 New York Film Critics Circle The Asphalt Jungle Best Director Nominated
National Board of Review Best Director Won
1952 New York Film Critics Circle The African Queen Best Director Nominated
1956 Moby Dick Won
Best Screenplay Nominated
National Board of Review Best Director Won
1974 Kansas City Film Critics Circle Chinatown Best Supporting Actor Won
1979 Los Angeles Film Critics Association N/A Career Achievement Award Won
1984 National Board of Review N/A Career Achievement Award Won
1985 New York Film Critics Circle Prizzi's Honor Best Director Won
1986 Boston Society of Film Critics Best Director Won
National Society of Film Critics Best Director Won
1987 New York Film Critics Circle The Dead Best Director Nominated
1988 National Society of Film Critics Best Director Nominated
1989 French Syndicate of Cinema Critics Best Foreign Film Won
London Film Critics' Circle Director of the Year Won

Film festivals

Year Festival Work Category Result
1948 Venice Film Festival The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Grand International Award Nominated
1950 The Asphalt Jungle Golden Lion Nominated
1953 Moulin Rouge Nominated
Silver Lion Won
1963 Berlin International Film Festival Freud Golden Bear Nominated
1979 Chicago International Film Festival Wise Blood Gold Hugo Nominated
San Sebastián International Film Festival Golden Shell Nominated
1981 Moscow International Film Festival Victory Golden Prize Nominated
1984 Cannes Film Festival Under the Volcano Palme d’Or Nominated
1985 Venice Film Festival Prizzi's Honor Golden Lion Nominated
Golden Ciak Won
N/A Special Lion for the Overall Work Won
1987 Tokyo International Film Festival The Dead Tokyo Grand Prix Nominated
Special Achievement Award Won

Guild awards

Year Guild Work Category Result
1949 Writers Guild of America The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Best Written American Drama Nominated
Best Written Western Won
Key Largo Best Written American Drama Nominated
1951 Directors Guild of America The Asphalt Jungle Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Writers Guild of America The Robert Meltzer Award Nominated
Best Written American Drama Nominated
1953 Moulin Rouge Best Written Drama Nominated
1957 Directors Guild of America Moby Dick Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
1958 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Nominated
Writers Guild of America Best Written Drama Nominated
1962 Directors Guild of America The Misfits Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
1963 Freud Nominated
1964 Writers Guild of America N/A Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement Won
1965 Directors Guild of America The Night of the Iguana Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Writers Guild of America Best Written Drama Nominated
1976 The Man Who Would Be King Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium Nominated
1983 Directors Guild of America N/A Lifetime Achievement Award – Feature Film Won
1986 Prizzi's Honor Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated

Other awards

Year Association Work Category Result
1957 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Moby Dick Best Foreign Film Won
1966 Accademia del Cinema Italiano The Bible Best Foreign Director Won
1979 The Recording Academy The Hobbit Best Recording for Children Nominated
1981 Society of Camera Operators N/A Governors' Award Won
1983 Golden Raspberry Award Foundation Annie Worst Director Nominated
American Film Institute N/A Life Achievement Award Won
1986 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Prizzi's Honor Best Foreign Director Nominated
Accademia del Cinema Italiano Best Foreign Director Nominated
1988 Cahiers du Cinéma The Dead Annual Top 10 Lists 3rd Place
Accademia del Cinema Italiano Best Foreign Director Nominated
Best Foreign Film Nominated
1989 Bodil Awards The Dead Bodil Award for Best Non-European Film Won

See also

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