The crusty director descended on the Festival by the Bay for a tribute in 1968.
Photo: John Huston answers questions in a live on-stage interview October 28, 1968 at the 12th San Francisco International Film Festival. Photos by Jim Parslow.
You could say that 1968 was a year of great tumult. General strike in France. Workers uprising in Czechoslovakia. The Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive. Che Guevara’s guerrilla war in Bolivia. The new was rising up against the old, and in many cases, winning.
Meanwhile, in the urban jungle of the city of seven hills, the 12th San Francisco International Film Festival hosted an unprecedented parade of Old Hollywood aristocracy, with Lillian Gish, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, John Huston, Jack Valenti and Budd Boetticher. Throw in Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould, Rod Steiger and Elisabeth Bergner for good measure. Columnist Herb Caen wrote that Opening Night looked like a rerun of the Academy Awards of 1937, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment.
In the spirit of the times, the Festival also welcomed controversy, showing new films by cine-guerrillas Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol, Jean-Marie Straub, Jacques Rivette, Melvin Van Peebles, Mai Zetterling and Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. And Michelangelo Antonioni was a particular thorn in the side of the conventional-minded as the director of Blow-Up spoke his mind in an onstage interview.
Perhaps a bigger surprise though, was an artist everyone had pegged as Old Hollywood, with his best years behind him to boot: the crusty adventurer John Huston. The clip reel of the writer/director of the The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen did not want for hall-of-fame Tinseltown moments. No doubt many considered the 62-year-old Irishman to be ready for the gold watch. Who knew that he still had Fat City, Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead in him? Who knew what he was going to say in his onstage interview?
Despite his major-league status and his propensity for making scathing comments, Huston was a gracious and accomodating guest. Newspaperman Gerald Nachman reported that on his way into the Masonic Auditorium for the tribute, Huston was stopped at the door by security. The guard "asked his name and ran a finger down a list of names on an identification sheet, muttering, ‘Huston . . . Huston . . .’" wrote Nachman. "The director stopped and smiled until he was cleared."
He began the interview by saying that he didn’t like to attend film festivals much but, "Yours is the kind of festival that has value. I believe in festivals where films are merely shown, without the strain of competition. The others have been too commercialized, and I promise you, they’d never get me to attend." He had the SFIFF nailed: It’s always been an event primarily for relaxed viewing and meeting the filmmakers.
Huston's work was misread by the auteurist critics of the time, who underestimated his achievements. It seems hard to believe because his filmography is as impressive a one as you can find: To the previously mentioned titles, add Key Largo, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Moby Dick, The Night of the Iguana and Moulin Rouge. And the reputations of smaller films like The Asphalt Jungle, Beat the Devil and The Misfits, though disregarded by movie reviewers at first, have steadily grown in stature since they came out.
Yet Huston did not complain about auteurist critics. Rather, he said, "American film critics are the worst in the world," he proclaimed. "As a whole they are not serious enough about film. The young ones are irresponsible, and the old ones are deadly dull. The best criticism is in the European newspapers. . . . [They] treat a film like a work of art."
Even though he will primarily be remembered as a director and screenwriter, Huston has also been an unforgettable presence in his and others’ films, although he said, modestly, "I only act when I can’t get another actor to do the part." In later years he became primarily an actor. His masterly performance as the twisted patriarch Noah Mulray in Chinatown can be seen as an inversion of his other most famous role as the noble patriarch, Noah, in The Bible.)
Just prior to his appearance at the Festival, Huston had completed shooting A Walk with Love and Death, starring his 17-year-old daughter, Anjelica. "The director is really a father figure," he commented. "In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, my father and I reversed our roles. As for Anjelica, she said I’d been directing her all her life. So it wasn’t a new experience for her." Walter Huston, directed by his son John, won an Oscar for his performance in Treasure of the Sierra Madre; In 1985 Anjelica would win an Oscar for her performance in Prizzi’s Honor.
Huston was only in town for 24 hours. He flew in from location in Germany just for the tribute, and flew back immediately. Sounds like someone who believes in what he’s doing more than the money he might get paid for doing it. Like those rebels in Bolivia, Vietnam and Czechoslovakia.