Books Saints and Sycophants
WHEN Myra Breckinridge premiered last July. Stanley Kauffmann wrote that John Huston's performance in such tripe was what he had come to expect from the once-deified director; that whenever he went to see a film which Huston either acted in or directed, he couldn't help thinking of how much the late James Agee had admired him. Kauffmann thought the wrong man died.
When Fellini Satyricon was reviewed, Kauffmann found the film to be a botched work of art; but he spoke of its failure in terms of Fellini's wish to depart from the autobiographical veins which he had replenished in the course of his career. The emotion expressed by Kauffmann was sympathy, only faintly supercilious.
Most American film critics, it seems, find it difficult to empathize with American filmmakers. Perhaps the great sense of shame critics express when American talent begins to fade comes from the fact that artists, in a romantic critical view, are not supposed to act like "normal people"; thus, when Huston cashes in on his name, he is accused of "selling out" to commercial enterprise. It is something we tolerate-nay, inculcate in our society, even while recognizing its basic immorality. A figure who enjoys making films and making money equally well is an easy target for guilt-ridden liberals.
This alone, of course, cannot explain the great bitterness Kauffmann implied. There are many other reasons why Huston has been the target of decisive vitriol.
For one thing, he has refused to be categorized. Though his reputation was made on tightly-structured dissections of American folk heroes in such films as The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Asphalt Jungle, he was not adverse to filming the seemingly frivolous African Queen, accused at the time of having some of the characteristics of Tarzan movies.
He was also too willing to compromise in order to make the films he wished to. Kauffmann sententiously stated once that the Huston of Sierra Madre would have burned the script to Moby Dick rather than have Gregory Peck star as Captain Ahab.
Probably if Huston had been a trifle more pretentious, had more readily underlined his intelligence, he would still be an acclaimed culture hero.
Instead, he arrogantly moved to Ireland and renounced his citizenship, hoping to leave his critics far behind him. Unfortunately, the critics now feel free to attack whenever possible. When receiving The Bible, most of the big-time New York critics waxed nostalgic for the DeMille days of yore. (Gary Arnold, in the now defunct Diplomat, recognized the great irony: Huston and DeMille were the legitimate and bastard heirs to Griffith's narrative film style. Huston translated it into lean, expressive prose, DeMille into doggerel,) Such creditable films as Reflections in a Golden Eve or A Walk with Love and Death are ignored altogether.
A new paperback edition of Lillian Ross' Picture reminds us of the legendary stature Huston once attained. The story of the making of Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, it is a tragicomic chronicle of the director's attempt to make a film which was conceived in form and substance to cut against the traditional grain, at a time when convention-breaking was not fashionable; at a time when studio heads could still dictate how a film should be produced.
Huston purported to make a film which showed the irony of wartime courage, "courage" being as irrationally motivated as "cowardice." And he remained faithful to Crane, not adding extraneous dialogue or dramatic effect, filming much of the material from a subjective viewpoint.
As IT emerged from MGM, however, the film became the story of the maturing of youth through battle. And the tacked-on narration included such glorious howlers as these lines from the "prologue":
[the book] was ACCEPTED by critics and public alike as a classic story of war.... Stephen Crane wrote this book when he was a boy of twenty-two. Its publication made him a man....
Ross followed the film from pre-production to premiere. She records the essential designs of character and position in exact detail: both Huston's outward-going vigor and intelligence, and his cynical acquiescence before influential studio heads; producer Gottfried Reinhardt's emotional attempts to salvage his film after Huston has left for Africa (one never is sure that for all his dedication Reinhardt really knows what his director is doing): Dore Schary's lip-service backing and Louis B. Mayer's outrages:
Knock the mother on the jaw! Throw the little old lady down the stairs.... Throw the mother's good, homemade chicken-soup in the mother's face!... Step on the mother! Kick her! That is ART, they say!
As Huston says, there is something gloriously exciting about the atavistic Hollywood Ross depicts, with its cocktail party intrigues and Picassos in the bathroom. There has never been a better-written and more informative description of film-making than Picture. It is also exemplary as a piece of journalism. Ross's acerbic style speaks forcefully throughout, combining novelistic narration and selectivity with vivid portrayals of the nuances of character.
In On the Set of Fellini Satyricon, an American journalist named Eileen Lanouette Hughes strives for Rossian statement, and fails quite obviously. Hughes, a Life correspondent, has penned a six-month diary account of the production of Il Maestro's extravagant, phantasmagoric bore. As Fellini claimed, the director did most of the creative work for the project in the scripting stages; thus, the detailed production notes are particularly fruitless, except for those who hunger for glimpses of the Great Man in action. As recounted by Hughes, the sight simply isn't that inspiring.
What is worst of all is that nearly everyone involved, Hughes included, is desperately trying to make sense out of Fellini's genius, taking themselves so seriously that they are failing miserably. Ross could have made an intelligent farce out of the spectacle of set designers and hairdressers, love children and La Mama actors rationalizing Fellini's social-psychological-religious urges while the director himself thumbs his nose at every available theory. But Hughes never quite conquers her awe of the proceedings, a flaw compounded by her cinematic illiteracy. (At one point, she refers to the famous film director Luigi Visconti.)
At least the sycophants during Huston's heyday were Runyon-esque characters, always possessed of a half-funny story to heal the pain of compromised filmmaking. In On the Set of Fellini Satyricon, the sycophants pretend to be intellectuals. Tragically that is how they are sometimes accepted.