One has to adjust

Times Staff Writer

Actress Anjelica Huston, who is 53, was recently in London, where she spoke to her friend actress Maggie Smith, who is 70. "I said, 'We miss you in L.A. Are you ever coming back?' She said, 'No darling, they don't like old people there.' "

Tell Huston about it. Her father, legendary director John Huston ("The African Queen"), told her in her mid-20s that she was "too old" to start acting. She went on to win an Oscar for "Prizzi's Honor" (1985) directed by her father, and was nominated for roles in "Enemies: A Love Story" (1989) and "The Grifters" (1990).

Lately, however, she's been taking smaller roles in commercial films (the head of a fashion agency in a Hilary Duff movie) and quirky smaller films (by directors Terry Zwigoff or Wes Anderson). She's also been turning to directing in a form that might surprise those who think of her as Hollywood royalty: TV movies for women. Her latest project is a one-hankie Hallmark Hall of Fame film with Rosie O'Donnell as a mentally disabled adult and Andie MacDowell as her estranged sister.

"One has to make adjustments in terms of what one does in one's career," she said on a recent Friday afternoon. The only customer in the Globe cafe, next door to her office in Venice Beach, Huston was all bangles and exotic glamour in gold bracelets and jewels, a sheet of sleek sable hair framing her famously regal and perfectly made-up features. She spoke distinctly in a friendly, arty way, often referring to herself in the oblique third person neutral.

Television has become a haven for women because, she said, the best film roles are still written for men and for male audiences. Yet Huston related her Maggie Smith story with an easy laugh and talked without bitterness or resignation about the lot of aging women in Hollywood. "It's boring to say, 'I'm not getting offered this or that.' One has to forge a solution rather than complaining."

Her solution is to explore new territories. "My early life as a director is like my early career as an actress: I like to try things out," she said. So far, Huston has directed three TV dramas aimed largely at women: "Bastard Out of Carolina" (1996), "Agnes Browne" (1999) and the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "Riding the Bus With My Sister," which airs tonight on CBS. The story follows a successful but self-centered photographer (MacDowell) as she learns to care for her sister (O'Donnell) after their father dies and who renews a love relationship in the process.

Huston makes no apologies for her choice of material. The genre of women's TV movies may be fraught with the perils of schmaltz, but it also has the potential to reflect core elements of women's lives, she said. "There's a touch of formula in these movies," she admitted. "The genre is predestined to be a bit of a weepie. As a director, you have to resist, and not manipulate your audience too much and stay truthful to what you like about the story."

Besides, she enjoys making these films, Huston said, because "I know more about women's psyches than men's psyches." The movies "are more about survival and redemption. But maybe that's women's lot too." An acquaintance called her newest film "one of 'those' movies," she said, the kind "that might come across as banal or cliched to some. But it's rooted in something real, slightly altered to be 'tele-matic.' "

Dressed in a ruffled suit jacket, jeans and boots, Huston resembled the stock heroine in romance novels and TV movies -- that sort of smart, independent, stylish woman who faces setbacks bravely and winds up happy and fulfilled with the great job and the great guy.

"I think women should have all the freedoms men enjoy and probably a few more," she said. "That is to say, they deserve to be spoiled, have doors opened for them, told they look beautiful when they're going out and be treated with nice presents." She acknowledged the fine line between being pampered and being controlled by a man. Still, she said, "There's something about 'feminist' where the 'ist' takes the 'ine' out of 'fem.' "

Huston said she harbors some of the rebellion against ageism that marks her generation of women. She may use collagen now and again, but said she refuses to go under the knife to look younger. She gave up on Botox after one try, she said, when she couldn't manage a facial expression in response to her husband of 13 years, sculptor Robert Graham.

Huston, who grew up in Ireland and London, was a successful model in New York before coming to Hollywood, where she became involved with Jack Nicholson and took acting classes "while I watched the phone ring for him." After they parted and she became involved with Graham, she moved from an isolated life in the canyons above Malibu to the denser, grittier, more spontaneous life of Venice. Her company, Grey Angel (named for Graham), is on a colorful street in a storefront a few doors away from his studio. The two lead independent daily lives, she said, and meet up "for a getting-to-know-you session at the end of the day."

Body of beliefs

Huston, who is childless, described herself as maternal with nieces, nephews and actors, a stubborn person with a limited supply of patience, someone who abhors rudeness in others but has trouble confronting them without having heart palpitations. She said she becomes ecstatic over "things of beauty." In Rome to film "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," she said, she experienced "a sense of God" in the city streets among the churches and "centuries of devotion. Extraordinary things have been accomplished and made in the name of faith," she said, adding that she's someone "whose prayers have been answered."

The child of an atheist father and a mystical seeker mother, ballerina Enrica Soma, Huston was raised "without religion, if that's possible in the Catholic West of Ireland," she said. She retains an attraction for the serenity, aesthetics and some tenets of the Catholic Church from her time as a day student in a convent, she said.

Huston has wide, overlapping circles of friends crossing several generations, some from childhood in London, some from New York and some -- such as Lauren Bacall -- inherited from her father.

Intentional or not, she said she has drawn on her father's style of directing, which she observed as a child on his sets. "His feeling was if he cast well, his work was largely done," she said. Acting, she said, is a process of "channeling" and depends mostly on the material and the other actors. Directing is a "refining process," Huston said. "Actors know more about what they're doing than anybody. It's not only a duty, but a pleasure to see what they've come up with."

Huston said she admires directors, including her father, Woody Allen, Anderson and Robert Altman, who develop a stable of actors to work with in film after film. "It's like how Bogart was for my father. Somehow you invest your own soul into the actor. It's a nice idea. Maybe it's easier for someone who writes [the script also]."

Developing her own projects has forced her to "toughen up," she said. For instance, she said, after she finished "Bastard Out of Carolina" for TNT, Ted Turner refused to air the child abuse survival drama because Huston would not cut scenes that would be tame by today's standards. "I suggested they show him the film, since he hadn't seen it," she said dryly. "Then I heard he screamed when he saw it," she said with a laugh. "Maybe that was a bad decision on my part."

After being shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was eventually picked up and aired uncut on Showtime. It was nominated for four Emmys and won for casting, and Huston also received a best director nomination from the Directors Guild of America.

She also tried to develop a project on Maria Callas (starring herself) with Arianna Huffington, author of "Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend." They met with director Franco Zeffirelli, who, Huston said, declined to participate but later made the project on his own in Europe. (Zeffirelli was unreachable for comment, but his friend Lawrence Auriana, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation in New York, said it is widely known that Zeffirelli's "Callas Forever" was based on a real experience between Zeffirelli and Callas.)

As a result, Huston said, she is less naive and trusting in her business ventures. "One plows bravely onward," she said. "One tries not to think too badly of one's betrayers."

Huston said she might try again to develop a film that gives her the lead role. But she said she would not direct herself as she did in "Agnes Browne," in which she took the leading role of an Irish widow when O'Donnell dropped out. "It's very hard to jump outside your own body to get an overview," she said. Plus, she said, it's harder for female directors who try to do both because of the longer time required for hair and makeup.

She said her phone rings with acting offers as much as it ever did, even after "Prizzi's Honor," mostly with offers for character roles, or parts in ensemble movies. "Somehow, it's always been that way for me," she said. In any case, she is more attracted to a film for its writing, or director, than the size of her part, she said. Huston plans to take a mix of roles balancing artistic auteur films (work that "one does for goodwill") with commercial fare (work that "pays the rent"). In exploring new ground, Huston said, "The main thing for me is to do it in my own time, with my own plan."

Ultimately, she hopes to make films that "help generate a way of considering different ways to look at things.... The world is so nihilistic now. There's so much distrust," she said. "One has to put out a hand."

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