Bradbury’s Own White Whale: John Huston

Image courtesy of Cinephilia and Filmmaking 

A trailer for John Huston’s film adaptation of Moby Dick, shot in Youghal, County Cork. The trailer has spoilers, so if you are waiting to read Herman Melville’s book, it is worth skipping. 

For Christmas, a friend who knew I have been researching John and Anjelica Huston very thoughtfully gave me Green Shadows, White Whale, Ray Bradbury’s novelization of his experience living in Ireland and writing the screenplay for Huston’s Moby Dick [1956]. I had never heard of the novel, which my friend told me was not much of a surprise given the fact that it has been out of print for quite some time. The book provided me with a fascinating insight into Huston life of filmmaking in Ireland, but more importantly, it left me with a question. Why has Huston been turned into a fictional character on multiple occasions?

To elaborate, the novel’s title is a nod to White Hunter, Black Heart, Peter Viertel’s novelization of Huston’s experience making The African Queen [1951], which was later made into a film of the same name by Clint Eastwood. During a 20th Century Hollywood literature class I took as an undergraduate, I read Arthur Miller’s final play, “Finishing the Picture,” which dramatizes Marilyn Monroe’s struggle to finish Huston’s film The Misfits [1961]. While many people  — Lillian Ross, Katharine Hepburn, Nat Segaloff to name a few — have written nonfiction books about working with Huston, it is fascinating that he has been turned into a fictional character on more than one occasion. Bradbury’s novel proves why Huston is such a fascinating “character” — for Huston seems to be performing his identity as the “Irish” womanizing, hard-drinking, creative genius director that he wants to be.

The novel was published over 40 years after Bradbury wrote the screenplay and is the amalgamation of years worth of short stories, essays, and poems (Bradbury 236). Due to this structure, at times it feels disjointed; it is difficult to track how time is passed. Additionally, Bradbury frequently drops in characters without any exposition. Interestingly enough, Green Shadows, White Whale tells very little of his process of writing Moby Dick. Instead, it is about his social adventures with Huston and the Irish friends he makes down at Heeber Finn’s pub.

Since Huston has decided to live in Ireland, he wants to center his film production there as well, which is why he pays Bradbury to move to Dublin while he is writing the screenplay. Bradbury has never been to Ireland, but he admires Huston’s work so he takes the job. On arrival, he is in awe of the director. Huston frequently refers to Bradbury as “kid,” which  says everything about their dynamic. On one hand, he shows fatherly affection towards the young writer. On the other, he asserts his authority and dominance. Bradbury’s characterization of Huston is exactly in line with what Anjelica says of her father in the documentary John Huston: An t-Éireannach:

“My father could make you feel terribly good about yourself, you know. That and the reverse if he so chose, but when he did focus his attention on you – the full impact of that smile and that interest – you felt that you were the most brilliant and wonderful thing in the world” (An t-Éireannach)

Huston boosts the young writer’s ego frequently throughout the novel; a confidence boost Bradbury desperately needs as he struggles to tackle Herman Melville’s dense source material. Yet, he finds out that understanding Huston is his own white whale. When Huston feels that he is not getting his way, he does “the reverse” as Anjelica says, and breaks down Bradbury’s spirit. During a newspaper interview, Huston keeps the attention on him by telling the reporter that Bradbury, “just doesn’t have his heart and soul in this film work” (174). When he laters tells a crying Bradbury, “Why hell, kid, it was a joke” (175), he downplays the situation, thus invalidating Bradbury’s hurt response. The scene demonstrates Huston’s insecurities, his need for attention, and that he is willing to play psychological games in order to remain in control.

The novel highlights how many of Huston’s behaviors are performative. He tries to show off his acclimation to Ireland by offering to throw his friend a hunt wedding. However, he soon discovered “that none had been held in Ireland for years” (40). The hunt wedding sequence demonstrates that Huston’s Ireland is tied to English upper class and Protestant Ascendancy tradition, and that despite his efforts, he does not know authentic Ireland. Much like Robert Flaherty in Man of Aran, Huston trivializes Ireland by holding onto traditions that are long past. Additionally, while Huston’s drinking is legendary in film communities, he rarely joins Bradbury at Heeber Finn’s, demonstrating his further disconnect from the local community.

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A film still from Moby Dick. Image Courtesy of Cinephilia and Filmmaking.

One of the most intriguing vignette’s comes when Huston and his industry friend Jake try to get Bradbury to admit to homosexual desires by confessing their own interest in men. Huston tells Bradbury that there is not “there’s not a man or boy or old man on earth that hasn’t at one time hankered for another man,” to which Jake concurs is “common knowledge” (155). While the men appear to be admitting to their bisexuality, Bradbury calls them on their bluff when he tells them that they are only men he is interested in romantically and sexually. For the only time in the novel, Huston refuses to respond and the characters sit in awkward silence. The scene shows how Huston and Jake were problematically using homosexuality as a way to tease Bradbury, but perhaps their performance was not just acting. In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, she uses the term “homosocial” to mean a type of male bonding and friendship that is created from Western society’s subconscious fear of homosexuality. She argues that even homosocial desire can feel dangerous to men who feel the pressure of their society, and thus therefore must be triangulated through the presence of a woman. Ricki, Huston’s wife, serves as the vessel for the homosocial tension in the scene, as she brings them back to the heterosexual behavior that they feel more comfortable in. Yet, Huston’s rare silence demonstrates that it might not have been a performance.

Many aspects of the novel present a cliched view of Ireland, especially the scenes in Heeber Finn’s pub. Bradbury occasionally problematically romanticizes the Irish, but also has a very crude and insulting take on the “beggers” in Dublin. It could be argued that these trite characterizations are intentional, for as a fantasy writer, Bradbury includes many fantastical scenes. For example, when the protagonist visits his wealthy friend Nora, they explore why her Protestant Ascendancy mansion is refusing to let her stay or throw parties. The absurdity of the adventures that the men at Heeber Finn’s find themselves in seem like something out of Voltaire’s Candide; humorous and just implausible enough to not be real. These sequences could make the reader question the validity the chapters with Huston, however, it really just accentuates the falsity of the world that Huston has created for himself in Ireland.

So why does Huston make a fascinating “character” for legends like Bradbury and Miller? Because behind the artistic Irish/Irish-American, hard-partying, womanizer façade was a man who seems to be performing aspects of his identity. Importantly, this does not mean that Bradbury ends his novel turned off by Huston. Despite Huston’s occasional harsh treatment, Bradbury loves and admires him, crediting him with “chang[ing] my life forever” (237). In fact, Bradbury refused to write the novel for years because he did not want to let out any salacious details of Huston’s life (237). Like Ahab’s struggle to kill the white whale, he  did not know how to write about the complex director (236). It wasn’t until Hepburn published The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind that he realized that he could tell the story he wanted to tell, without damaging Huston’s reputation (236). Bradbury’s awe of Huston seems to be a common response in both nonfictional and fictional representations of the acclaimed director. His “character,” whether authentic or performed, is something that  truly leaves writers fascinated.

Bradbury’s discusses getting even with Huston at 1:17 into the clip.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. Green Shadows, White Whale. Harper Perennial, 2002.

“Cinephilia and Filmmaking: Moby Dick.” CINEPHILIA and FILMMAKING, http://cinearchive.org/post/68360192875/a-document-of-exceptional-historical-value-ray. Accessed 25 Jan. 2017.

John Huston: An t-Éireannach. Directed by Brian Reddin, interviews with Anjelica Huston, Louis Marcus, and Ann Fahys, TG4, 1996.

Man of Aran. Directed by Robert Flaherty, performances of Colman King, Maggie Dirrane, and Michael Dillane, Gaumont British Distributors, 1934.
Moby Dick – Trailer – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/. Accessed 25 Jan. 2017.

Ray Bradbury on John Huston – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/. Accessed 25 Jan. 2017.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial  Desire. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

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One thought on “Bradbury’s Own White Whale: John Huston

  1. Love this blog entry! In my teens, I was a huge fan of Ray Bradbury. I had never heard of this book by him, but will definitely keep an eye out for it. There’s so much of interest here. I really like the connection you form between the many fictionalised accounts of John Huston and his performance of his Irish identity.

    Like

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