Saturday 13 July 2019

From 'the darkened house of his memory' - John Baxter recalls an encounter with John Huston

John Huston
Among the occasional jobs available to the footloose film critic in London during the ‘eighties was conducting one of the National Film Theatre’s on-stage interviews or “lectures.” Cigarette manufacturer John Player financed them until, in the late ‘seventies, a cloud of tobacco smoke appeared and Players departed under it, to be replaced by the Guardian newspaper. 
             Guests ranged from Jacques Tati to the Hammer horror team, and from Bette Davis to Larry “Buster” Crabbe, one-time embodiment of Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. The practice of reserving the front row of seats for sale on the day ensured that guests faced the cream of the crazies, including those fanatics eager to dominate the Q&A period with nit-picking queries about apprentice obscurities that invitees hoped were long forgotten. “You saw that thing?” said more than one victim, turning to the interviewer with a mute plea to get them out of this.

It may have been as a reward for having successfully presented such tricky subjects as former “Hollywood Ten” member Edward Dmytryk and Buster Crabbe, who insisted on plugging a book he’d written about his recovery from arthritis, that NFT programme director Brian Baxter (no relation) asked if I’d like to interview John Huston, who was in London to publicise his memoir An Open Book. 

Huston’s was a patchy career. For every Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra MadreAsphalt Jungle and Man Who Would Be King, there was a Freud, Barbarian and the Geisha,  a Moby Dick and, of course, The Bible, with Huston himself playing a patriarchal Noah. Lately he’d largely been written off, but there was art in the old dog yet, as he would go on to prove in the last decade of his life with Prizzi’s Honor and the touching valedictory The Dead.

In 1980, however, he was better known for his brawling, drinking, fornicating, and the generally destructive lifestyle that had left him a near-invalid.   Screenwriter James Salter left a memorable picture of Huston’s life in Roman semi-retirement, his needs seen to by assorted sycophants, among them a woman who supplied girls to the rich and famous

He was living in a suite in the Grand Hotel on a diet of vodka and caviar. She would call him.
 “John, do you want some girls?”
“Bring them around,” he said. “We’ll have some fun.“
She brought three, one of them eighteen years old, (He loved young tender girls, she explained.)  In the late afternoon was best. 
“Darling,” she said to me after describing a scene that might have taken place at Roissy [ie, in the s&m classic Histoire d’O.]. “You’re a writer, you should know these things.” 
James Agee
Whenever I began to regret taking the Huston job, my then-wife urged me on. James Agee, who, as a critic, championed Huston and later scripted The African Queen, was her great uncle, and she was eager to meet the director. 

As he was staying at the Savoy Hotel, a preliminary lunch was arranged in its elegant Grill Room.“Why not come along?” I said. “There’s just Huston and his PA, someone from the publisher, and myself. I’m sure they won’t mind.” But she, a photographer, had a shoot that morning. She hoped, however, to finish in time to join us.

I arrived with the publisher’s representative, to find Huston and his helper – an attractive young woman, naturally – already seated by the tall windows looking out across the sunlit Thames.  Every hair of Huston’s white beard flared with the back- light that also edged into each fissure of his craggy face. Tubes led to his nostrils from an oxygen tank, but in other respects he seemed much like the man who, six years before, had strutted with such authority through Chinatown as the patriarchal tyrant Noah Cross.

This impression didn’t survive a few minutes of conversation.  The politeness with which he deflected our questions revealed how age and illness had eroded his memory. He forgot titles, confused dates and names, and barely recalled even the anecdotes that filled An Open Book.  Would our NFT talk be a repeat of Vincente Minnelli’s appearance, where the interviewer’s queries elicited little but mumbled monosyllables? 

Typically, the rest of us ordered the Thinking Person’s Lunch; grilled lamb chop, green salad, mineral water. But Huston was having none of it. “I have heard,” he rumbled to our waiter, “that your steak and kidney pudding is exceptional.” “Indeed it is, sir!” 

A snap of the fingers brought to the table a domed trolley the size of a Volkswagen. Its silver cover rolled back to reveal a tower of inch-thick suet pastry, from the breached battlements of which spilled an oozing stew, gleaming with grease. “Splendid!”

As the waiter heaped his plate, Huston tucked a napkin into his collar and attacked it with appetite.

Meanwhile, my wife had rushed through her shoot.  Panting into the Grill, she headed for our table – to be deflected, in the best tradition of British service, by the head waiter, who steered her into an arm-chair maintained for just such occasions. 

“If you’d like to take a seat and catch your breath....” He glanced across the restaurant. “There’s plenty of time. They’ve hardly begun.” He waved to a waiter. “A glass of water for madam.”

Shortly after, as she arrived, poised, at our table, hair combed and make-up adjusted, Huston abandoned his pudding to stand and shake her hand. Only then did he notice two waiters arriving with an additional chair and a new place setting. 
“Oh,” he said, with every indication of delight at the prospect, “you’re going to joinus!”  
“My wife is the great niece of James Agee,” I said.
For the first time, his eyes came alive. 
“Ah, Jim!” he said. “What a delightful man. I never knew any writer who brought so much truth to his work.” 

Lunch forgotten, he launched into story after story about the writing of The African Queen; their decision to work on a ranch near Santa Barbara, as far as possible from the temptations of Hollywood; the practice (urged by Huston, it went without saying) of beginning each day with two sets of tennis and a brisk swim in the lake; the gradual discovery that, though Huston went to bed at ten, Agee worked on, chain-smoking and emptying a bottle of bourbon a night as he wrestled with his first screenplay; and of course the disastrous tennis match during which he collapsed with a heart attack. 
It was impossible not to pay attention to Huston’s leonine growl, to avert one’s eyes from that mesmerising gaze. The stories in his book were not, as I’d feared, forgotten. Rather they lay dormant in the darkened house of his memory. It required only that one turn on the lights. 
Had he wished to recruit our help, he could not have chosen a more effective method.  That’s exactly why he’s doing it, whispered the cynic in meAnd such manipulative behaviour would certainly have been consistent with the bully, brawler and sadist of most people’s description. But by then he’d won us over. 
Our on-stage conversation was a success. Nobody saw the work that went into maintaining an illusion of ease. My notes indicate the path we picked through his career, and the cues necessary to reconnect him with his lost memories. Behind his foxy grandpa facade, was Huston congratulating himself on having pulled the wool over some more sets of eyes? If so, he was too skilled to betray himself. And if it was so, there was some consolation in knowing that, among his many dupes, we were in the best of company.

John Baxter
John Baxter is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

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