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John Huston: Courage and Art Hardcover – 15 Nov 2011
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>>>John Huston "shot forty pictures in forty-six years, between 1941 and 1986," Jeffrey Meyers writes, "and probably made more great films than any other American director." My only complaint about that sentence is: Why "probably"? Huston's first film was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Maltese Falcon," his last an adaptation of James Joyce's short story "The Dead." Each is a masterpiece, and there are at least five others between them: "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950), "The African Queen" (1951), "Fat City" (1972) and "The Man Who Would Be King" (1975).
The list is mine, not Meyers's. He rates "The Man Who Would Be King" a bit lower than I do and "The Misfits" (1961) and "Under the Volcano" (1984) higher. But that is neither here nor there. As a lifelong admirer of Huston's work, I find Meyers's analysis for the most part astute and his evocation of Huston's sprawling, eventful life very much on target. Meyers churns out books, mostly biographies, at a rate that must give pause even to Joyce Carol Oates, and they are uneven at best, but when he is good, he is very good, and "John Huston: Courage and Art" is very good, indeed. Like most of Meyers's other books, it relies heavily on secondary sources, but there is perhaps as much to be said for synthesis as for original research, and Meyers makes the most of the many books and articles to which he has turned.<<<
Huston and his biographer have produced some wild reactions in amazon reviewers, notably about Freud (1962), so I was pleased to find the above critique, which to me takes the right perspective on both men. Jonathan Yardley does not mention the book's prologue, which is on the parallel between Hemingway and Huston, and puts both men in the same class (of sick machos - to me, not to Meyers), but that seems to be the price of art's genius in their case. On the proposed list, I would add Under the volcano (1984) and Prizzi's Honor (1985) to The Dead (1987), which indeed make for his final powerful trilogy.
fbus42: John Huston: Courage and Art," by Jeffrey Meyers 11/7/2012
COURAGE AND ART begins oddly, with an entire chapter comparing Huston to Hemingway. This struck me as pointless, but it turned out to be a perfect demonstration of Meyers' technique. Throughout the whole book, whenever Meyers introduces a colleague or friend - be it the jockey Billy Pearson or the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre - he runs through a tedious list of characteristics the person shared with Huston.
Meyers also has an amusing habit of amply quoting his previous biographical subjects, such as Wyndham Lewis, Joseph Conrad, and George Orwell, none of whom ever met Huston or had anything to do with him. Meyers isn't one to waste research.
Even so, the book manages to entertain - how couldn't it? In between films, Huston indulged in painting, boxing, fox hunting, art smuggling, drinking, gambling, and womanizing. He genuinely loved danger and exotic locales. He led a principled stand against McCarthyism. He respected literature. Like many larger than life monsters who are called self-destructive, he enjoyed a very long and fruitful career. He directed his last, first-rate movies (PRIZZI'S HONOR and THE DEAD) from a wheelchair, sucking on oxygen.
I have many more nits to pick about Meyers' plodding manner, but why dwell on the negative? I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from learning more about Huston. This is a responsible, straightforward biography of an important, fascinating artist who led an amazingly adventurous life. If you want to *feel* what it was like to know Huston and fall under his spell, read Peter Viertel's classic roman a clef WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART. If you want the facts of Huston's life, COURAGE AND ART will do.