From the archives: John Huston

by HFPA March 28, 2013

by Jack Tewksbury

For forty years the HFPA has recorded interviews with famous and celebrated actors, actresses and filmmakers. The world’s largest collection of its kind — over 10,000 interviews — is now in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Library. The audios are fascinating. Below is an excerpt: in this anthology of quotes from the late 1980's, master filmmaker John Huston reflects on his life and the craft of directing.

“I was born in Nevada, Missouri. My grandfather won the town in a poker game.

Walter Huston, my father, was an actor  who  traveled the West with a theatre  troupe. For a brief  period, he did a  vaudeville  act  with  a  chicken  that  danced  on  one  leg. Times  got  hard.  Other  vaudevillians  said Walter  ate  the chicken. He  said  that  was  a  bold lie! He ate  only  the  leg the  chicken  didn't  dance  on.

My mother and I  traveled the West  with  him. I  got  a taste  for  colorful  people. Making a  movie,  I  like  casting  best. No  question , my  films  are  successful  because  of  my casting.  I  choose  charismatic  actors  with  the ability  to play  a  certain  role.

I  directed  Marilyn  Monroe  in  her  first  movie, Asphalt  Jungle,  and  last,  The  Misfits.  She  was  the  embodiment of  the  characters  she  played.  I  give  artists  as  much  freedom  and  encouragement  as  I  can  to  be  themselves.

Very  often,  as  in  Prizzi's  Honor, I get  the  actors  together  and  say, "Look, work  this  scene  out  between  yourselves." I'd send  the  crew  away  and  tell  the  actors, "Send  for  me when  you're  ready."  Half  or  three  quarters  of  an  hour   later  they  would  have  put    a  scene  together.  Usually  it was  ideal,  and  I  wouldn't  have  to do  any  directing  at  all. That  is  what  being  a  director  is knowing  when  not  to  direct. Someone  asked  me  a  question  about  having  conflicts on  the  set. You  don't  have  conflicts  with  an  actor.  You  get as  much  out  of  him  as  you  can  through  encouragement.You  give  him  heart  and  boldness  and  freedom  to  exercise his  artistry.

Jack  Nicolson  has  the  greatest  virtuosity  of  any  actor   in  the  business. He  is  not  necessarily  the  greatest. De Niro  is. There  was  never  a  better  actor  than  De  Niro.  I'm  often  asked, "Why  haven't  we  got  actors  like Bogart  and  Cooper  today?" Well,  Bogart  and  Cooper  weren't  like anyone  who  preceded  them. But  the  very  nature  of a  star is  that  he  isn't  like  any  other  star. We  have extraordinary actors  today.

The  Nineteen-Thirties and Forties  male  stars  were  unique because  each  was  a  defined  personality,  supported  over  and  over again by screenplays  written  specifically  for  them.  Their  voices  personified  them. Each  one  not  only  sounded different  from  the other, but  no  one else  on  the  planet  had their  accents  and  manner  of  speech.  Even  some  of  the   women, particularly  Hepburn  and  Davis.

Again, we  have  extraordinary  actors  today, but  not  personalities.  Well, Nicholson.”