Animal Magic

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.

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His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.

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Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.

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As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

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19 Responses to “Animal Magic”

  1. I have big problems with sport hunting, of which I understand Huston is a particularly egregious example. I try not to let it interfere with my appreciation of his mostly wonderful films. I’ve always suspected, however that Noah Cross might be closer to the one true John Huston than anyone might care to acknowledge.

  2. For an animal lover, Huston sure liked killing them. But then, he indentified with them, and animals love killing other animals.

    The deplorable elephant hunt has been well documented. How sincere his repentance was is open to question. Making The Roots of Heaven doesn’t outweigh killing an elephant. An odd thing about Huston is his tendency to flipflop, making The Red Badge of Courage and then co-writing Sergeant York, for instance. The Bible and Wise Blood. Like Charles Foster Kane, I don’t think he had any convictions. Apart from “I’ve been reasonably entertained on most occasions.”

  3. Anjelica Huston had some REAL PORBLEMS with her father when he directed her in A Walk With Love and Death> But everything went swimmingly years later when he directed her in Prizzi’s Honor and transcendentally in his last film The Dead.

    He was a great film director, a fine actor, AND “a piece of work.”

    Looking forward to seeing his performance in The Other Side of The Wind directed by that other “piece of work” OW.

  4. Yes, I do hope that comes together as planned.

    Part of Angelica’s problem was that she wanted to do Romeo and Juliet and her dad stopped her. Having ignored her much of her life, he suddenly wanted to run her career. It didn’t work — though she’s wonderful in the film. The bad critical reaction seems to be an inability to stand the truthfulness she brings to it.

  5. Positif was crazy about the film. The sponsored special screenings of it after its regular run.

    Anjelica is pure truthfulness. Especially in The Grifters

  6. And this indelible moment from The Dead

  7. Stephen Frears talked about casting The Grifters — these incredible actresses would come in, and he could see the film branching off in completely different directions based on what they brought. He said Sissy Spacek was amazing, and in her hands it would be about poor white trash, class and the urge to succeed. With Angelica it became Greek tragedy, and he couldn’t resist that.

    He also liked being able to reference The Maltese Falcon at the end.

  8. Oh yes. Her descent in the elevator.

  9. henryholland666 Says:

    I watched “The Maltese Falcon” yet again recently and it’s amazing that it was the first film he directed.

  10. It feels quite storyboarded, doesn’t it? More worked-over than his later films, when he was, as Mike Nichols put it, “completely relaxed” (to the point of not always coming in to work).

  11. henryholland666 Says:

    In the case of “The Maltese Falcon”, it’s a *good* thing that it’s “worked-over” because the story is complicated, there’s a lot of characters and loyalties & allegiances between the characters shift with the wind. For a non-J. Huston movie that should have been more “worked-over” see: “The Big Sleep”. When even the author of the story that a movie is based doesn’t know who killed one of the characters, that’s a problem.

    BTW, I love “The Big Sleep”, but I’ve only watched the 2nd (theatrical release) version once, I’m used to the original version that was only shown to US troops in 1945. Less Bacall, more linear.

    The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has film screenings, I went to one of “Double Indemnity” yesterday, it was nice to see a good-sized crowd there on a work day afternoon. Oh. my. gawd. what a great movie, hadn’t seen it in years. As the guy behind me I was chatting with said “It’s nice to see MacMurray as the bad guy and Robinson as the good guy”.

  12. Huston said he only changed a few bits for narrative clarity — adding a phone call and stuff. And leaving out a rather good dream. But that was what he got right — ONE of the previous Warner films is moderately faithful to the story, but gets the emphasis wrong at every turn. It makes a fascinating comparison.

    Yes, Double Indemnity stands up well. I tend to forget how good it is, and that the best stuff is Robinson.

  13. “parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex”
    Not true. If anything, it’s the reverse.

  14. Huston also includes a story about finding an antiques dealer whose parrot seemed to go against his theory: it took a dislike to Huston but loved its owner. Huston was astonished, and gave voice to his theory about parrots’ gender prejudice: “Don’t the males just like women?”
    “And pederastes,” said his friend.

  15. “Don’t the males just like women?”
    Extrapolate that comment, and it tells us all we need to know about JH’s constricted understanding of gender.
    There is a reminiscence about him in Bradbury’s “Irish” memoir Green Shadows, White Whale (the book deals with Bradbury’s sojourn at Huston’s manor, writing Moby Dick). At one point, Huston discusses male-on-male sexuality and – if Bradbury’s recollections are trustworthy – he doesn’t have the slightest understanding of what being gay actually *means*. I was reminded of my experience years ago of being interviewed for the New Zealand Herald, when I was doing an unabashedly gay play in Auckland; the journo was baffled by the notion of men falling in love and volunteered that he’d “tried it once, and it just didn’t work for me”, and it took me some minutes to realize that he meant same-gender *sexual* congress, which is really only a relatively modest aspect of being LGBT – he hadn’t “tried” anything at all. Men’s physical responses are straightforward (touch a dick, it gets hard, no matter who is doing the touching). Being gay is about falling in love. With this in mind, Huston’s mentality seems to me to have been stunningly simplistic.

  16. Firstly, Huston may have been projecting: maybe male parrots just didn’t like HIM for some reason. Whatever made him popular with hippos didn’t work with our colourful friends.

    Knowing Huston’s troubles with Montgomery Clift on Freud, and given his Hemingwayesque aspirations, he may have had real problems assimilating the very concept of homosexual love into his worldview. He does attempt to deal with a gay character’s emotions in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but its strictly in terms of repression and neurotic angst. Not that isn’t legitimate territory, especially at that time. I didn’t find the film too successful, but it has its fans.

  17. Yes, I’m a big fan of RIAGE (particularly the original sepia-toned print), mainly because it is so conscientiously loyal to Carson McCullers.

  18. One thing about Huston, from The Maltese Falcon on, he did like to stick to the source, and he did have pretty good taste in sources.

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