It is now customary but true to say that Anjelica Huston lived for years in the large shadows of two men: her powerful father, John Huston, and her companion for 17 years, Jack Nicholson.
Her father had, with kind intentions, cast her at age 15 as the co-star of "A Walk With Love and Death." It was too much too soon. The film failed badly and the critical pummeling she received was enough to make professional dog-walking seem an attractive career alternative. But she gamely worked in the theater to restore her confidence, understudying Ophelia in a production of "Hamlet" in London, where she appeared, and New York, where she didn't.
"I didn't think I was pretty enough to be a movie actress," she said at lunch a few days ago. "I didn't want to be the subject of a critical onslaught again. I'd been humiliated by all of that. It would've been a mistake to do anything else at the time, although it might've been different if Maerose had come along then," she added with a grin.
(She prays that Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, Sofia, acting in "The Godfather Part III," will not inherit anything like the same critical targeting, simply or in any degree because she happens to be Coppola's child.)
John Huston is gone, but not before he launched her extraordinary, late-blossoming career by casting her as Maerose, the don's tough daughter in "Prizzi's Honor."
The long relationship with Nicholson terminated abruptly and permanently with the revelation that he had fathered a child with another woman. Anjelica Huston is on her own, and it isn't half bad.
Her newest film, "The Grifters," directed by Stephen Frears from a novel by Jim Thompson and a script by Donald E. Westlake, opened Wednesday and Huston is again a revelation. Blond and haggard, she plays a tough survivor in a tough world, working the race tracks for a major bookie, keeping a distant eye on the son she bore illegitimately at 14, conning everybody as the first line of defense against being conned herself.
"I've seen the film seven or eight times," Huston said, "and it was only at the end of a cast and crew screening the other night that I felt for the first time what a conniving woman Lily was. 'Ooh, what a dreadful woman,' I thought to myself."
But, Huston said, that was the skill of the late novelist Jim Thompson: "finding the sympathy in unsympathetic people, humanizing the dark side." The film indeed offers three of the least sympathetic characters, plus some unappetizing side dishes, that you are apt to encounter.
The triumph of Huston's work is that you come away with some understanding and a touch of pity, if nothing higher, for this woman who is both victim and victimizer, the conning and the conned, in a kind of endlessly repeating loop.
Huston has by now developed a line in women who may be strong but who are as well loners and sometimes losers and who, always, are thoroughly realized individuals, comprehensible if not invariably sympathetic. When they are not particularly sympathetic, the characters earn a grudging and often amused admiration for their mastery of the arts of survival. Maerose Prizzi established a high standard and the beginnings of a pattern.
In "The Dead," her father's beautifully melancholy last film, she was a woman living, it seemed, for the memory of a lover dead too young. She was a study in another kind of survival, the existence that outlives the life.
She was yet another kind of loser in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," the mistress discarded and then murdered when her jangly, ever wilder importunings got out of hand. In Paul Mazursky's "Enemies, a Love Story," she was a survivor again, of the world at its genocidal worst.
The "Enemies" role was hard, a long leap from the woman she was to the woman she was playing, accent and all. They rehearsed a month. "But I didn't know until the night before we filmed my meeting with Ron (Silver) just how I'd play it. The experience of Auschwitz can't be taken lightly, and I was scared of my gall in claiming it as my own."
But then she made an obvious but not so obvious actor's perception: "You forget you don't have to provide everything. I was intimidated until I took the onus off myself. I let Ron carry it. I could look in his eyes and take it from him."
Lily was difficult as well. "She's not necessarily someone everyone will love but she's a fantastic role, and that's what I care about. That's the fun." It was a hard shoot, a relatively short schedule and modest budget, done all on locations in workdays that were often 15 and 16 hours long.
"There's a quality in Stephen's work," she said. "The scenery seems to fall away and his characters are right in your face. He seems so vague for someone who knows precisely what he wants to do. He's dumb like a fox."
For a time, Huston had a development deal at Lorimar but decided it was not for her. "There's a pitfall. Actors tend to develop ideas around themselves, and that's not always the best way to go. And I realized that I like to be a tool, someone who can understand what the director wants, be an interpreter. When you're a producer, you're embroiled in things that aren't helpful to you as an actor."
After the succession of critically celebrated roles that began with Maerose and has also included "Gardens of Stone," "A Handful of Dust," "Witches" and a fine cameo in television's "Lonesome Dove," Huston can pick her shots.
"I can be in control of my own destiny," she said, "and that's what I've always wanted to be. I like to ask myself, 'Can I really do this? Can I fulfill this?' You try to stretch, and those are the parts that are the most satisfactory in the end."
Presently she is acting in a film version of "The Addams Family," with Raul Julia, Judith Malina and Christopher Lloyd (from "Back to the Future") as Fester.
"It is a romp," she said. "We are shooting for 16 weeks. It better be a romp."