Life With Father : Anjelica Huston Talks About the Risks and Rewards of Growing Up in a Famous Family

Mark Morrison is West Coast senior editor of US magazine.

ANJELICA Huston was born in Los Angeles in 1951, while her father was in the Belgian Congo filming "The African Queen." John Huston didn't see his daughter until three months later, when the Huston family came to Paris, where John was directing "Moulin Rouge." The Hustons stayed in France unti 1953, when John went fox hunting in Ireland, fell in love with the countryside and moved his family to a 150-acre estate, St. Clerans , in County Galway.

"It was a fairy-tale childhood. My father was away three-quarters of the time, but when he came home he brought wonderful presents. He was kind of a Santa Claus figure. He'd go make "The Barbarian and the Geisha" in Japan and return with incredible silks and kimonos and Japanese dolls and fans. He'd go to Mexico and come back with hampers of semiprecious stones and serapes. He was always very lavish, very extravagant, very elegant. Every time he returned home, the house would come alive. Mahogany would be polished, fires would be lit, guests would arrive. He would bring back with him a completely eclectic group that normally would not find themselves in each other's company in a thousand years--a driver he had in Mexico, Pauline de Rothschild, John Steinbeck, the local parish priest, and the gentry who were terribly proper and awfully awfully . He's very much a natural aristocrat; he doesn't differentiate between which is better in life, a farmhouse or a chateau.

"Life at St. Clerans mostly revolved around riding. My father could come back after five months and get straight on a horse and go hunting, jumping six-foot-high stone walls and God knows what within a day. It takes most people two to three weeks just to warm up to that, even if they're good riders.

"When I was 12 years old, I cub hunted. That was a big thing--one's first real hunt. I was 'blooded,' as they say. When you finish the hunt, the huntsman takes the tail of the fox and stripes the blood on your face. I wasn't wild about having guts sort of spread on my face, but it was really a big compliment."

At St. Clerans, Anjelica grew up removed from the real world--riding Connemara ponies, catching eels in the river, talking to imaginary creatures. She studied with French tutors and spent winter holidays in Switzerland. But even when he was home, John Huston was not a playful father. The son of actor Walter Huston (whom John directed in his Oscar-winning "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"), John was a painter, prizefighter and journalist before he settled into screen writing. He was moody, restless, a perfectionist at work and at home.

"He could be quite a taskmaster. Of course, you always longed to please him, presenting your drawings to him for approval, practicing your riding to show him how you'd improved. . . . I don't think you think about being close as a child.

"I remember going to his room in the mornings around 10 o'clock. He would hold court in his bed. He had a beautiful Louis XIV bed. Green, carved artichoke pillars with two birds intertwined on top. My brother (Tony) and I would curl up with him and draw and talk about our plans for the day. We were happy for his just being there. But we found he was more inclined toward what was adult in children than what was childish in children. Because of his intellect, he didn't suffer fools gladly. You didn't want to get on his wrong side. Once, at the dinner table, the subject of Van Gogh came up. I said somewhat flippantly that I didn't like Van Gogh. He said, 'You don't like Van Gogh? Then name six of his paintings and tell me why you don't like Van Gogh.' I couldn't, of course. And he said, 'Leave the room and, until you know what you're talking about, don't come back with your opinions to the dinner table.'

"But when it came time for my father to leave again, we would cling to his legs as he was to be driven to the airport. A sense of magic would be gone from the house, and things would get a little dull again."

Ricky Soma, Anjelica's mother, was 20 when she became John Huston's fourth wife. She had given up her career as a ballet dancer, given birth to two children, and suddenly found herself in the hinterlands of Ireland doing needlepoint . Soma, who had been photographed by Philippe Halsman for the cover of Life in 1947, left Huston when Anjelica was 10 and took her children to London. Anjelica saw even less of her father.

"My mother's life in Ireland must have been quite repressive. My father was usually away, working, so she must have been very lonely on a large estate in the middle of nowhere. For his part, my father always had a taste for adventure, a taste for the good things. That included other women. I can't imagine that that could have been, ultimately, terribly satisfying for her. Eventually, my father had a son with another woman, and my mother had a daughter with another man. It was evident that things were never going to go back to where they had been.

"Life in London was very traumatic. I didn't feel particularly pretty at the time and clung to my makeup with some persistence. I was very, very skinny--the second-tallest girl in my class. I had knobbly knees and this nose, which gave me some tribulation. We lived there in the swinging '60s. I was a couple of years too young to be in the heart of the era, but I was influenced by it: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, fishnet stockings, hanging around Notting Hill Gate, smoking cigarettes. I was going through a lot of changes. I was prone to wearing a lot of black eye makeup and Max Factor Pan Stick. All my friends were doing it in school, and we thought it looked great. But it appalled my father. He would say: 'Wash your face! Why are you covering that lovely skin?' There's a streak of the Victorian in him. And remember, this is a father with a daughter who was away from him a lot of the time. He knew her as a little child, and all of a sudden she's a young woman.

"It was a difficult period. I was confused, wondering what was happening. My parents' separation wasn't explained to me. I have always been under the erroneous persuasion that if you don't ask, it won't harm you. I preferred to be mystified rather than depressed. I preferred to believe everything was all right, that my parents still loved each other, rather than hear they didn't."

In 1968 John Huston decided to launch his teen-age daughter's acting career with the film "A Walk With Love and Death," a lyrical tale of a young man in war-torn medieval France. Anjelica was cast as his young love. It was a generous gesture on John's part, but the timing was wrong.

"I never really had a great affection for the script; I thought it was a little bit soppy. Meanwhile, there was a search on in London to find Juliet for Zeffirelli's film of 'Romeo and Juliet.' I met with the casting director three or four times, and I was very eager to play Juliet. So here I was on the brink of making a move of my own, and suddenly I was back in the mode of the daughter: being in a situation where I didn't have the individuality I wanted. I entered the picture with reluctance--a mistake, God knows, I don't think I'd make again. The making of the movie was uncomfortable. I didn't communicate well with my father on the set or off the set. I had trouble with my lines. I thought I looked ugly. I felt terribly naked without my makeup. I just wanted a little mascara. I always tried to sneak some by--which he invariably spotted. And there'd be discussions about how young girls in the 15th Century didn't wear pancake. . . .

"I wanted to please him. The fact that I was ungrateful and petulant about it was hardly something he could have expected. After all, Katharine Hepburn didn't criticize his approach to direction. Why should I? I knew I shouldn't refuse. I was also afraid of him at the time, and I was into avoidance. I just didn't know quite what he wanted me to be. At times, it seemed he wanted me to be Tricia Nixon. Now, looking back on it, I think he wanted me to be happy. I wasn't."

After "A Walk with Love and Death," Anjelica returned to London and read for the role of Ophelia in Tony Richardson's production of "Hamlet" with Nicol Williamson. Marianne Faithfull landed the part, but 17-year-old Anjelica became her understudy. Then, while the play was in rehearsal, Ricky Soma was killed in a car crash in France at the age of 39.

"People were always talking about 'John's health' when I was growing up. He had emphysema; he'd go riding and have falls; he was drinking a bit--never a hair-of-the-dog man, but he could certainly put some away. It always seemed to me his health was quite fragile. The question of my mother's health never came up. So when she was killed, it was an unearthly, shattering blow--the kind of shock you simply don't get over. It's unparalleled in my life. My father was making 'The Bible' and had to take the train from Rome. He couldn't fly because his lungs were bad. When my brother and I met him at Victoria Station, I thought he was going to drop dead. He was terribly upset. It was a horror of a time. My instinct was to run as far as I could, as fast as I could. I went on in the play, and when it came to America, I came with it, my bags firmly packed. I was pretty vulnerable at the time. I had to do a publicity tour for 'A Walk With Love and Death' and face the reviews. They were quite unpleasant."

In 1971, Richard Avedon, an old friend of Ricky Soma, asked Anjelica to model for a Vogue fashion shoot in Ireland. She jumped at the chance. Modeling for high-fashion photographers such as Helmut Newton provided Anjelica with her first real sense of independence.

"At this time in my life I was avoiding (my father). I was making my own money and didn't have to ask for anything. And I didn't want to re-enter that arena. He was in California and just about to get married again, and I had a boyfriend he didn't particularly approve of, a man who was a good deal older than me.

"I was scared of incurring my father's wrath so I preferred to stay away. My boyfriend was inclined to very dark moods. I would feel responsible and wonder what I'd done to incur his wrath. Perhaps I was repeating the cycle a bit.

"Ultimately, the relationship was untenable. We went for a fishing trip with my father and his new wife to Cabo San Lucas. I wanted my father and my boyfriend to like each other, and I let it inhibit me. I suffered because of it. I got a major sunburn and laid in the bottom of the boat in this searingly hot weather with a sailfish being clubbed to death on the side of the boat. The trip was a disaster; it wound up with a fight between me and my boyfriend and our bidding each other goodby at the airport. I collected my bags at LAX and drove to my father's house in Pacific Palisades instead of returning to New York. This time I had fun with him. We talked and laughed, and it was relaxing not to be under the pressure of the relationship. For the first time, I was able to relate to my father on a human level, instead of a father-daughter level."

Anjelica stayed at her father's house till he left to make "The Man Who Would Be King" in the early '70s. At 21, she had her own credentials. She was less defensive with her father, less afraid and ready for a relationship when she met Jack Nicholson at a party at the actor's home.

"My father always loved Jack, which was a tremendous relief. I never thought he'd approve of anyone. But he loves Jack--they love each other. I wouldn't pluck them out of the universe and say these are terribly similar men, but they both love art, sports; they're both very generous and funny and extremely intelligent; they're attractive and charming, and they both have a wild side that suits me. It's more than the adrenalin rush--it's a deeper search. It's the love of adventure and the excitement of things unknown."

In 1984, Anjelica appeared in a flop science-fiction movie called "Ice Pirates." But the producer, John Foreman (who had produced "The Man Who Would Be King," handed her a copy of Richard Condon's novel, "Prizzi's Honor," and asked her what she thought about Maerose, the Mafia princess character. Anjelica was the first principal player signed for the movie version--ahead of star Jack Nicholson and director John Huston. Her performance won her the Academy Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Award and the New York Film Critics Award. And, although now 80 and plagued by emphysema, Huston directed Anjelica again last winter in "The Dead"--James Joyce's story about a young man's jealousy of his wife's dead lover. The movie is set for a fall release.

"I think my father is the greatest living film director. It's the ease with which he works. As the don says in 'Prizzi's Honor,' 'Like most beautiful things, it's very, very simple.' I think he was happy with my performance (as Maerose). I think he's proud of me. He's never been overblown with his praise. If he says it's good, you can be sure it's good.

"I think he likes the fact that his children are adults now. We can all be around each other and be close now. We're more of a family than we ever were in the old days.

" 'The Dead' is very meaningful for all of us because it's (about) Ireland. I think it very nearly broke my father's heart to leave Ireland, but he's not one to dwell on his ills. He's been brought to his knees a few times but will not lie down. He has a long cord (connected to the oxygen tank) so he can walk around, but for a man who loves freedom as much as he does, the fact that he goes on working, and none of this stuff stops him, is an inspiration. Everybody on the set of 'The Dead' got sick except my father. We had cases of pleurisy, pneumonia, flu. I contracted mononucleosis. People were being taken off in costume and sent to bed. He relentlessly went on.

"In a certain way, it's almost the Bobby Duvall character in 'Apocalypse Now.' He can walk up and down the beach and yell, and people can fall all around. But somehow, God's got a hand on his shoulder. I see no other reason for his being alive today.

"I've grown a lot since that first movie with him. I wouldn't say that the dynamic of our relationship has changed enormously, but I have changed a good deal. There is an element in me that still seeks his approval and is still disappointed if I don't win it. But I don't think I rely on that the way I used to. At a certain age, you grow up and stop feeling you have to defend yourself and provide the perfect answer every time--because that's not what he's looking for either. He's looking for me to be happy and fulfilled and, hopefully, prosperous. And that is what I'd like to give him."

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