An American film director who told stories about independent and adventurous men struggling for their individuality, John Huston led such a life, himself. His hyper-masculine protagonists seemed to stem from his own youthful pursuits as a boxer, competitive horseman, Calvary officer, and major in the U.S. Army. Married five times and divorced four (fourth wife Ricki Soma died in 1969), his reportedly bitter attitude toward women informed his female characters as either weak-willed prizes or seductive threats to manhood. Nevertheless, Huston's unconventional and rambling lifestyle led to some of the most celebrated American cinema, as well as the hub of three generations of Oscar winners.
Born in Missouri to noted actor Walter Huston, his family traveled extensively on the vaudeville circuit. After riding horses in Mexico and magazine reporting in New York, the younger Huston secured a job writing dialogue in Hollywood. He started acting and published his first play, Frankie and Johnny, before wandering around London and Paris working as a street performer and artist. Upon his return, he worked as an editor and writer before convincing his employers at Warner Bros. to let him direct his first movie, The Maltese Falcon, in 1941. The popular source novel by mystery author Dashiell Hammett had been filmed twice before, but only Huston's adaptation would be remembered as a prime example of the classic film noir-detective story. It also made a star out of leading man Humphrey Bogart, whom Huston would cast in his next few films: Across the Pacific, Key Largo, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. An adventure drama shot in Mexico examining the nature of man's greed, Sierra Madre won him his first Oscar for Best Director and earned his father, Walter Huston, his first for Best Supporting Actor.
Continuing to write Hollywood screenplays and make military documentaries for the U.S. War Department, Huston's next big directorial success was in 1950 with the gritty caper film The Asphalt Jungle, another cinematic innovation in the crime genre. This was quickly followed by The African Queen, earning leading man Bogart his first and only Academy award for his role as drunken boat captain Charlie Allnut. Huston's next production, an adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, had a notorious history of production difficulties with MGM. In 1952, his biographical drama of painter Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, Moulin Rogue, won Oscars for art direction and costume design. In 1956, he and co-screenwriter Ray Bradbury conquered a major literary adaptation with Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. During this time, Huston had found a home for himself in Ireland with his wife and newborn daughter, Anjelica. After he quit during production of A Farewell to Arms, he then tried the African Queen romantic formula again with Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. In 1961, he directed The Misfits, the tragic last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, co-starring Montgomery Clift (whom Huston would cast in the psychoanalyst title role of his next feature, Freud). Two more adaptations would follow: The List of Adrian Messenger from the mystery novel by Philip MacDonald and The Night of the Iguana from a play by Tennessee Williams.
After winning a Golden Globe for his supporting role in Otto Preminger's The Cardinal, Huston did odd acting projects for the next decade and directed A Walk With Love and Death, marking the film debut of daughter Anjelica. In 1974, he gave one of his most notable performances as the villainous Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Huston made a brief comeback the following year as writer/director of the witty action-adventure saga The Man Who Would Be King, the black comedy Wise Blood, and the Broadway musical adaptation Annie. But his major comeback would be in 1985 with the crime comedy Prizzi's Honor, which earned Anjelica Huston her first Oscar for the supporting role of Maerose. She also starred in her father's last film, The Dead (1987), which was inspired by the James Joyce short story collection Dubliners. Huston died of pneumonia later that year in Newport, RI.