JIM REES profiles the American motion-picture director, writer, and actor whose taut dramas were among the most popular Hollywood films from the early 1940s to the mid-1980s. Indeed, his own life – in which Huston starred as a boxer, painter, horseman, gadabout, rebel, and international ladies’ man (who married six times) – was at least as engaging as many of his movies.
The word ‘maverick’ is greatly overused. It originally applied to a stray animal that had yet to be subdued and branded, but it soon became the go-to label for anyone who lives outside the usual social expectations.
Hollywood has had more than its share of such free spirits and none came freer than the writer and actor John Marcellus Huston. For five decades he was a colossus in the film industry. His main claim to fame was as a film director, notching up such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen.
We have a soft spot for Huston in Ireland, mainly because he had a soft spot for us. Moving here in the 1950s, even becoming an Irish citizen.
He was born in the town of Nevada, Missouri, on 5 August, 1906, to what seems to have been a family of characters as colourful as any of those in his films.
One story tells how his grandfather won the town – yes, the town – in a poker game. John’s father, Walter, was also a quirky individual who became an Oscar-winning actor in one of John’s films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His mother, Rhea, was a journalist who travelled extensively in search of ‘the big story’.
John was their only child. He was seven when they divorced and so began a lifetime of unsettled searching; sometimes in the company of his father on the vaudeville circuit, sometimes with his mother on journalistic assignments.
He eventually settled in California where he became the state Amateur Lightweight Boxing champion. Huston, however, had no intention of turning professional. It was always going to be show business and he made his Broadway debut in 1925.