My three minutes with John Huston
You may think that Hollywood is too preoccupied with image and success to care much about the individuals who get caught in the cogs of its industry. But here's the story of how I walked into a producer's party as an up-and-coming publicist for the stars and walked out knowing who I really was.
It was the fall of 1985, two years after I'd moved to Los Angeles from a small town in Oregon. Amid the stacks of Broadway and Hollywood trade publications those at my firm had to read every morning, I discovered an invitation for an unusual Malibu party. Shortly after I arrived, I was on the phone with one of my more dashing clients, an actor I'll call Mr. A.
"They're honoring John Huston at a luncheon for documentary filmmakers," I told him. "Believe me, it's worth the $75. There will be tons of directors there and good press. Don't worry; I'll be there. I know the media. No, I don't know Huston, but trust me. I'll find a way to introduce you."
Although he was a producer, writer, and actor, Huston was most famous for directing films like "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), "The African Queen" (1951), "The Night of the Iguana" (1964), and "Prizzi's Honor" (1985). Now he was being honored for his lesser-known but fairly controversial World War II documentaries that the United States Army Signal Corps had commissioned in the 1940s. When the International Documentary Association scheduled an advance screening of three of the documentaries, we obliged ourselves to attend as part of our homework.
In "Report from the Aleutians" (1943), Huston showed the human reality of war, which caused a great amount of turmoil between him and the Army. The footage had nothing to do with the propaganda for which it was commissioned. Instead, Huston reported on Allied planes being downed over the Japanese-held island of Kiska.
"The Battle of San Pietro" (1945) was to be a victory film of the Allied invasion of Italy, but Huston turned the camera instead on an American attempt to take one tiny hill that became a bloodbath. The film was condemned by its commissioners as "antiwar" until General George C. Marshall later released it, believing that an accurate picture of war might help prepare new soldiers emotionally for battle.
The last of the trilogy, "Let There Be Light" (1946), never saw the light. The film was banned by the US government until 1981. Apparently, Huston's intent to show psychiatric patients recovering from the shock of war had shown, too well, how war affected people.
The reality of these films overshadowed my purpose at the Malibu party: I was trying to be a writer with Huston's kind of boldness, but I didn't have the guts. Publicity was easier.
At the surfside luncheon, after we had toasted the unsung heroes of documentary films, John Huston appeared, also applauding them from his wheelchair. His beautiful and statuesque daughter Anjelica stood behind him.
Huston still had a booming presence, and he spoke to us as colleagues, writers and filmmakers like himself. He said it was up to us to write the truth, to continue the work he had set out to do in all his films. Don't waste your time unhappily writing what you think Hollywood wants, he said. Make yourself happy, then write from the creativity that comes from that. Dare to live it, and then tell it like it is, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. Huston spoke as someone who is passing the torch. It was moving.
But because Huston was casting his next (and, as it turned out, final) film, "The Dead," my Mr. A. had a more immediate concern. He wanted to meet Huston. Could I arrange it?
"He's leaving," I replied.
Mr. A's too-handsome face looked downcast, and I could not bear that. How could I let him down?
"Look," I said, "just walk into the living room up there and mingle until I grab you. I'll find a way."
But when I asked, I was told that, regrettably, Mr. Huston and his daughter had just left. Half of me was relieved. The other half realized this would be my first professional failure in Hollywood. Confused, I headed toward a rest room at a far end of the house to gather my wits. The door was locked.
And when the rest room door opened, I found myself nearly falling into the lap of the departing John Huston.
We faced each other for a moment in that narrow hallway, he in his chair, smiling; Anjelica at the back of his chair, also smiling. I smiled.
Then something unexpected happened. Words spilled out of my mouth before I could even think of them.
"Mr. Huston," I said. "I am a writer. Your speech just shaved about 10 years off my struggling in this town writing junk. I just wanted you to know that you've given me a huge head start."
I did not expect this giant among filmmakers to light up and take my hand warmly in his two large ones, but he did. And he looked up at me.
"Thank you," he said. And then he let fly an arrow that hit me straight on. "You go do it," he said. "Go do it!"
I'm not sure he saw the tears beginning to pool in my eyes.
A short time later, a small crowd had gathered by his limousine to see him leave. I put myself offstage, you might say, behind the limo. Then the back window slowly lowered. Before I knew it, Huston was leaning out and turning toward me. When he caught my eye, he blew a kiss and whisked it along with a quick Irish wink that I'll never forget. Then he was gone.
Mr. A, meanwhile, had come outside, adjusting his sunglasses. "Did I miss anything?"
I could barely hear him. He, his handsomeness, fame, and needs were no longer part of my desires. I was far, far into a different path that had nothing to do with fame or power. I was already beginning to leave Los Angeles.