Anjelica Huston’s film career has had the rare trajectory of jumping suddenly from a lengthy flatline to a high plateau of extraordinary portrayals. For years she seemed to languish elegantly in the definition of celebrity as “someone famous for being well known,” except that even in brief film clips of her entering some premiere or benefit function, you sensed a tacit importance in her sharp prepossessing image, one of Euripides’ keen royals awaiting her artful say.
She finally had it in “Prizzi’s Honor,” and her subsequent roles disabused anyone of the notion that the contrast between Maerose Prizzi’s sleek beauty and deep Bensonhurst accent was a comic fluke. Her magnanimous Tamara in “Enemies, a Love Story” took bad news with a small adjustment of the eyes and a drawn corner of the mouth, and filed it in a vast storehouse of European regret. She added a deep current of female wisdom and strength to the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” “It was almost Greek drama,” film critic Stanley Kauffman says of her performance as the lone she-wolf in “The Grifters.”
“You can add that to a small gallery of enormous range,” Kauffman adds. “Even in ‘The Addams Family,’ you saw a cool humor unlike that of anyone else. She’s a woman of heroic dimension. She’s had some rough knocks along the way, but as they used to say, she’s well brought-up.”
Huston plays 30 or more years in the life of a Seattle housewife in the miniseries “Family Pictures,” which begins airing on ABC tonight, but it’s only a fine actor’s skill that links her with suburbia’s quotidian. Based on Sue Miller’s best-selling novel, “Family Pictures” is Huston’s first miniseries role since her affecting 1989 appearance in the hugely successful “Lonesome Dove.” In it she plays the matriarch of “the perfect family,” which consists of five children--one of them an autistic son--and a husband who’s a successful but emotionally distant Seattle psychiatrist.
“I find myself playing a lot of extreme parts--I’ve done a roster of witches,” Huston said. “I was looking to play someone who was common. I don’t mean low. I mean normal, or a woman the world would think of as normal. It was interesting for me to do this last year when we were hearing so much about ‘family values.’ The timing was right to see something that was counter to the sanctimonious overview of what family was.”
Huston was sitting in a restaurant booth in Beverly Hills, dressed in a three-quarter length oatmeal colored jacket over a long black skirt and black calf-length boots. Along with her height, there’s an unmistakable drama in her features: luminously pale skin contrasted with hair the color of black coffee; a columnar, graceful neck; a slightly exotic tilt of the eyes, and a nose that belongs to the Italian Renaissance.
She’s a figure to whom the word presence naturally applies, and it could be forbidding were it not for her good-natured, occasionally self-deprecating manner. Emotionally speaking, she’s light on her feet. Wherever possible, and aside from the tenor of serious remarks, a lot of her conversation is angled toward a laugh.
(“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked somewhat imploringly as she plunged her hand into a large black leather handbag. “I know it’s not the thing right now. I can just see: ‘She started the interview by lighting a cigarette,’ and people thinking, ‘Oh.’ ”)
Unlike her character in “Family Pictures,” Huston’s own life has had more of a modern epic shape, characterized by early sorrow and a decades-long struggle to get out from under the shadows of two powerful and notorious men. As granddaughter of famed actor Walter Huston and daughter of writer-director John Huston, whose 39-film output included a number of American classics (such as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen”), Anjelica’s place in the scheme of things seemed assured, whether she worked or not.
Too, her 17-year relationship with actor Jack Nicholson was always a staple of celebrity buzz. They seemed perfectly emblematic of how people regard nocturnal Hollywood when they think of it as glamorous and hip, mysteriously informed and suavely self-contained--so much so that Woody Allen let stand Paul Simon’s ad-lib in “Annie Hall,” when in trying to entice Diane Keaton to a party, he said, “It’ll be mellow. Small. Jack and Anjelica will be there.” Even the folks in flyover country would know to whom he was referring, and what irresistible cachet their image held.
But most of those years in which Huston seemed to conduct herself in an effortless glide were actually full of restless anxiety and self-eclipse. She was 34 when she won the best supporting actress Oscar for “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), rather late in the game for anyone who isn’t a character actor. Even now, she’s a bit touchy about why it took so long.
“When I’m asked questions about what it is to be a certain age and be an actress, or is 40 a difficult age to be an actress, I don’t think that that follows,” she said.
“I’ve worked steadily. I’ve not had to get into any battles. I don’t feel this ominous threat of unemployment. It doesn’t exist for certain people. There are women I admire, like Vanessa Redgrave, who’ve had no problem working steadily. There are always people who don’t fall into a category. I was lucky never to have been an ingenue type.”
Huston chose her words carefully. To the extent that people feel differently about the same things at different times, recollections will vary and even contradict themselves. She once confessed in an interview that turning 40 hurled her into a crying jag that lasted for two days. And unlike Huston, Vanessa Redgrave never played a scene in “Laverne & Shirley” wearing a replica of the Eiffel Tower on her head.
As for battles, there was the time, just before “Prizzi’s Honor” began filming, when she asked her agent if she could be paid above scale. The agent made a phone call, turned on the speaker phone, and together they heard a voice say, in effect, “Everybody knows she’s only in this because of her father and her boyfriend. There are 15 actresses who want that part. Sure, let her ask.”
Reminded of the incident, her voice rose in subtle emphasis as she said, “There are useful epiphanies. It’s when people tell me what I can’t do that I say, ‘Watch!’ The useful things are the things that tell you ‘No.’ ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ was systematic revenge. I took it out through the character of Maerose. It wouldn’t have helped for me to show up with a dagger.”
Whether or not it’s a truism that larger lives often need more time to fill themselves out, there was a lot for her to assimilate. She was born July 8, 1951, the daughter and second child of John Huston’s fourth wife, aspiring ballerina Enrica (Ricki) Soma. (Her screenwriter brother Tony is older by one year.) Shortly thereafter, she moved with her family to the mythic setting of St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in County Galway, Ireland.
Her father was away most of the time, to Africa for “The African Queen” and “Roots of Heaven,” to the coast of Madeira for “Moby Dick,” to Japan for “The Barbarian and the Geisha,” to Hollywood for deals and post-production. His returns home therefore took on an operatic, Fellini-esque quality, with Huston bearing strange gifts from foreign places, sometimes dressed exotically himself, and leading a merry entourage whose laughter and conversation lit up the house--all of which seemed quite spectacular to a young girl.
Anjelica found lots to conjure in countryside explorations with her friend, writer Joan Juliet Buck (who quotes Hendrik Willem van Loon on Ireland: “Just to the west is the deep abyss of the ocean; it is less mysterious than the ground under your feet”). But the actresses who showed up at St. Clerans were no less intriguing.
“I was always prone to dressing up,” Huston says. “It was a way of getting attention. I was a good mimic and could make people laugh. But most of all acting had a lot to do with an ideal of beauty. When actresses came to visit, they seemed the most enviable thing to be. They were always beautiful, and somehow mysterious and glittering. It always seemed to me that they led such beautiful lives.”
Life with father was another story. “When I was small I was my father’s little girl, but he was tough on his children. We vied for his attention, which created tension between my brother and me. Having a younger mother meant we shared more with her than with him. I think it shocked him to see changes going on, though we couldn’t see them as kids. I was conscious of his disapproval. His reactions could be quite stringent. He wasn’t someone you’d want to be on the wrong side of in the best of times. He wasn’t abusive. He was dissatisfied with things in his own life and he was apt to transpose those things onto his own children.”
Huston’s parents split up when Anjelica was 11, and she went with her mother to live in London, where her schooling included the Lycee Francaise, St. Mary’s Town and Country, and Holland Park Comprehensive. She entered a stormy adolescence. “It was shocking to him,” she recalls. “I was going to anti-war rallies and happenings at the Round House. I wore fishnet stockings and had a mode of behavior that did not go over well with him.”
Two devastating occurrences followed close on each other. John Huston yanked his 16-year-old daughter out of school to play a 14th-Century French heroine in “A Walk With Love and Death,” a film that was generally greeted as ponderous, archaic and a disaster. Shortly before its release, 39-year-old Ricki Huston was killed in a car accident.
Of the film, Anjelica recalls, “I was reluctant. He was not happy with me. It was not the kind of thing I could pick myself up after. I didn’t grow up on movie sets. I didn’t know the inner workings of the movie business.”
As she spoke, she peered down at the table and adjusted and readjusted the silverware, and then crushed a packet of sugar under her thumb. She tossed her head and looked up.
“When my mother died, it just turned everything upside down. I was concerned that my father would put me in a convent--or at least under strict supervision. I was afraid of him. I don’t think he realized his own power. He could overstate easily to make a point, like me. I didn’t quite understand him the way I do now. He had a lot of information to impart and the urgency was great. He was making ‘The Bible’ in Italy and had to take the train up because of his emphysema. He was sensing his mortality.
“It was all so devastating. My bedroom was next to my mother’s. I’d never felt such a chasm, such an abyss of loss or emptiness, before or since. To realize that I’d never see her again was simply more than I could bear. My instinct was to run away.
“Ah,” she said, touching the corner of her eye to stop a tear. “There goes makeup and hair.” She smiled gamely, gathering herself.
After her mother’s death, she had indeed taken flight. Except for an understudy stint as Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s 1969 London production of “Hamlet,” her acting career went into lockdown as she embraced the remedial fuss and thoughtlessness of fashion modeling, which took her to the runways of London, Paris, Milan and Germany before she revisited her father in California in the mid-'70s.
“I decided to give it all up, throw the cards in the air and stay here,” she said. “Then I met Jack.”
The interview had resumed a few afternoons later at the corner table of a hotel restaurant. She shrugged as she tried to find a coda of meaning for her years with Nicholson.
So much has been written about that relationship that it’s almost become a matter of public record; they were social cynosures, a kind of royal couple in Hollywood’s endlessly self-inventing milieu. They had always given each other a wide berth, and when it was reported that Nicholson had fathered a child by another woman, Rebecca Broussard, the media expressed its tacit disapproval by frequently referring to her as “a former waitress.”
In any case, the event took Huston and Nicholson out of reach of each other.
“You fall into patterns in relationships, and usually one voice is stronger than the other’s,” she said. “If you love who you’re with, you hold on to it, if it matters to you. Sometimes not being directly honest about things leads you not to confront things. I’m not very confrontational. I don’t think Jack was either--I don’t know about now. Rather than look at a lot of issues, it was more our style to sidestep them. When you lose communication, things fall apart.”
Looking back, she concluded, “He taught me a lot about what I need. You can’t blame anyone else for not giving you what you need. You can’t go around griping and complaining. What I need is to be more confrontational, more direct in my communications. I need to feel mutuality and trust.”
When Huston threw her cards in the air, she was willing to wait a year to read how they’d fall. But that year stretched into a decade. A small role in “The Last Tycoon” and a non-speaking part in “Swashbuckler” were all she had to show for the ‘70s. She was filled with self-doubt. “I gardened a lot, planted a lot of roses.” In the meantime, Nicholson was fielding 25 scripts a day.
A head-on auto collision at the bottom of Coldwater Canyon in 1980 turned out to be her much-needed wake-up call--she’d come breathtakingly close to the same end as her mother (a tiny arrow-tip of bone is still half-buried in the bridge of her nose, the only visible remnant of a six-hour operation to repair it). Soon after, director Lee Grant pulled her aside from a rehearsal of Strindberg’s “Playing With Fire” at the American Film Institute and told her that she should seriously consider acting lessons. The advice was not welcome, but it turned out to be sound; Huston began to blossom in a four-year collaboration with the late acting coach Peggy Feury. In 1982, she moved into her own house.
Under Feury’s tutelage, she started to unlock. “There aren’t anecdotes to tell you how she did what she did,” Huston says. “It was her essence. She could be quite devastating, but for some reason she just made me feel good about everything I did, even though I wasn’t even in the advanced class. ‘The grown-ups,’ like Meg Tilly and Sean Penn, had their own class. I learned to work from little epiphanies, and let the moments come themselves. It’s a way of letting the audience know something more than the other character, so the camera will see a little more than anyone else, as the camera should--that’s what it’s for.”
For a while it was slow going. Huston appeared in the 1981 remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Frances” (1982) and “This Is Spinal Tap"(1984). She also did some television work. But it wasn’t until producer John Foreman, who had cast her as a space-age Amazon in 1984’s “Ice Pirates,” brought her the script for “Prizzi’s Honor” that things began to fall into place.
“I can’t say I didn’t go in with trepidation, but everyone was in a good mood for that movie,” she said. “There’s a lot to be said for playing comedy. Foreman had a genius for putting people together, and my father loved me to be happy. You forget that sometimes. He wasn’t well, and a lot of it was about making things joyful and simple. I was enjoying him and learning from him.”
If “Prizzi’s Honor” had been the most precarious movie she had made as an adult, “The Dead” had to be the most satisfying to the soul; a great many things were laid to benevolent rest. In the last short story of James Joyce’s “The Dubliners,” John Huston was able to recapture the dream of an Ireland he had lost, and in it he created a legacy for two of his children. Tony Huston wrote the screenplay. And as Gretta Conroy, Anjelica Huston erased any doubt that she now knew how to be the specific and ambient creature a fine actor becomes. She had an ear for Gretta’s elegiac music, which echoed that of Yeats’ “Ephemera”: “How far away the stars seem, and how far/Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.”
John Huston died shortly after, in August of 1987.
Right now, Anjelica is reprising Morticia in the sequel to “The Addams Family,” which has been a huge commercial success and has put her in touch with a new audience of children and younger people.
“I like Morticia, I like playing witches,” she says. “ ‘The Addams Family’ is monetarily lucrative, which makes it possible for me to do other things. But I also like to do something different after I’ve taken on an emotionally demanding role. And children are the best audiences. They’re unpolluted, direct. It’s a rare pleasure to be in an audience of kids when they’re watching something they like.”
Having become one of Woody Allen’s featured players, she’ll also be out in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” “She’s a tremendous talent,” Allen says. “There’s nobody like her. If you don’t have Anjelica, you don’t have anyone. I sent a polite note and asked if she’d be interested in doing ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ I didn’t think she’d be interested in a small part where she gets killed. But she surprised me. She’s in that category of first-rateness. She has a built-in instinct. In ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ she plays an authoress. She not only has to be attractive and sexy, she has to project intelligence. And Anjelica has that. More than me.”
She also appears in HBO’s upcoming “And the Band Played On,” based on Randy Shilts’ book about AIDS, a topic of personal grievousness. “The situation is very dire,” she says. “It seems I’ve lost everyone I worked with from my New York days; and friends have dropped off in alarming ways. These are difficult days for this country. In the ‘80s the money went out of Medicare, so that now we’re treating the situation with a band-aid. I like to think of myself as someone with a heart and a conscience. I support any effort to counter ignorance towards issues like Amnesty International, or child abuse. Everything’s been reduced to a charity. One has to take a stand.”
Huston’s recent marriage to Los Angeles sculptor Robert Graham has, ironically, reprised the image of a socially prominent couple who always seem to be in the right place, pictorially speaking. But she points to sturdier underpinnings.
“He’s there for me at the end of the day. He knows and understands movies and even remembers more than I do--he’s got a photographic memory. But our disciplines are not so different. There are days that go well and days that don’t; he understands the devastation you feel then.”
Graham views her similarly. “The reason we get on so well is that she understands the artistic temperament as something fragile,” he says. “You see people and their work from the outside as one thing. But the center of an artist’s life is fragile. And as far as celebrity is concerned, I know we’re in a time when it’s become more important then achievement, but she doesn’t buy that for a minute.”
“I realize now that I have as many years behind as I do ahead,” Huston said, by way of discussing her future. “I’d like to go on to the coming years with renewed energy. I would love to have a child. Robert and I cohabit very well. There’s no flimflam there. I’d like to hold on to a certain innocence. I was happy about the tone set by the inauguration. Sometimes it’s good to drop your cynicism and smell the possibilities again, once you realize there’s no place you can hide.”
She stood up to say goodby, and her chair pinned a large vase against the French window. “ ‘As she rose to leave, she knocked over a potted plant,’ ” Huston offered by way of comic narrative, as if to say, “See what I mean?”