Writing Film Biography: John Huston

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by | Jan 18, 2019

an excerpt by Jeffrey Meyers


The subject of a biography is an uneasy mixture of what interests the author and what the publishers will buy.  Ideally, you should have a subject whose appeal will sustain you for several years, art that is still relevant and influential, unpublished material available in archives, family and friends to interview, and no competing biography in print.

My biography of Huston began as a life of Sylvia Plath.  When my proposal for Plath was turned down by publishers—the market seemed saturated and female editors didn’t relish a man writing about her—my new agent then sold my proposal for a life of Huston to Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House.  But there was one drawback.  Until recently, an author’s advance was paid in two halves.  Now, as publishers squeeze authors, it was disadvantageously cut into fourths, with the last slice coming a yearafter publication. 

The film director (1906-87) turned out to be a much more sympathetic and attractive figure than the brilliant but unclubable poet.  Huston had an amazing array of talents and his life, most unusually, was as fascinating as his work.  I was attracted to the themes of his men-without-women films: the virile fraternity, the failed quest for an impossibly elusive goal, the mockery of cruel fate, the sense of victory in defeat, the Conradian fall from grace and attempt to recover lost self-esteem.  I was especially interested in his films that were inspired by both literature and art, his exotic locales, his friendships with Hemingway and Bogart, his personal courage, and his relationships with many beautiful and talented women.  He also had a perplexing mixture of good and bad traits.  He was brave, generous, loyal to friends, kind to the sick and the weak.  He was also consistently unfaithful, rough on his wives and children, hostile to homosexuals, occasionally cruel, a hunter of foxes and killer of big game.  But I was determined not to make moral judgments of Huston’s conduct, and to take pleasure in his impressive achievements.