Bright Lights Film Journal

Hollywood Royalty: Two Autobiographies by Anjelica Huston

Angelica Huston with John Huston in the 1950s. Photo reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

She was never classically beautiful, at least by Hollywood’s exaggerated standards: a few too many sharp angles on her face, a few too many vertical inches on her frame. But Huston learned, early on, how to use these disadvantages to her benefit. “You’re a tall and imposing girl,” an acting teacher told her at the beginning of her career. “When you ask for something, you don’t need to extend your hand. You have our attention.”

* * *

A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, 254 pp, Scribner, 2013; Watch Me: A Memoir, 389 pp, Scribner, 2014

It was at a dinner party in 1981 that Anjelica Huston decided to do something with her life. Twenty-nine years old, she was known, if at all, by proxy: first, as the daughter of film director John Huston, and then as the chic, leggy creature photographed on the arm of actor Jack Nicholson, the most raffish movie star in the world. (“We’re gonna meet Jack and Anjelica, and have a drink,” the music producer, Tony Lacey [Paul Simon], says oh-so-casually, as he tries to lure Annie [Diane Keaton] away from Alvy [Woody Allen] in Annie Hall [1977].) But what had Huston done herself? A little modeling. A few cameo appearances in her boyfriend’s films, none lasting much longer than the blink of an eye. Then, at a Hollywood soiree one evening, movie director Tony Richardson beckoned her to his side. “You poor little thing,” he said. “So much talent and so little to show for it. You’re never going to do anything with your life.”1 This may sound like a cruel dig – and certainly it must have felt that way at the time – but it was precisely the spur that Huston needed to get moving. “Inside I was thinking, ‘Watch me,’” she recalls in the second volume of her autobiography, which takes this simple two-word declaration as its title.

When the first volume of Huston’s memoirs, A Story Lately Told, appeared on bookshelves a little over a year ago, I picked it up immediately, though not without some apprehension, hoping to find insight into the art of acting and on-the-ground anecdotes from the sets of The Dead (1987), The Grifters (1990), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), but at the same time fearing I would have to plow through pages of Hollywood gossip and the usual assortment of fawning compliments for her peers that one so often encounters in celebrity memoirs. As it turned out, I found neither – which I would have known if I had bothered to read the book’s subtitle: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York – and was utterly engrossed.

My pleasure, in large part, derived from the fact that it was a celebrity memoir with so little celebrity in it – or, perhaps more precisely, so little pomp. Though Huston was born into a family of Hollywood royalty – her grandfather, Walter Huston, was one of the most respected stage and screen actors of his generation; her father, John Huston, one of the most legendary film directors of all time, the creator of The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The African Queen (1951) – her childhood was remarkably secluded, spent, in large part, on a grand but isolated estate in County Galway, Ireland. While her father roamed the world making movies, she, her brother, Tony, and their mother lived in luxuriant seclusion, cut off from friends and playmates but surrounded by Louis XIV furniture, Venetian glass, Imperial jade, and paintings by Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Juan Gris.

And therein lies the pleasure of the book. It’s like reading a first-hand account of a childhood spent in Beijing’s Forbidden City: even the most ordinary details glimmer with an exotic sheen. Rather than playing soccer or baseball as children, Huston and her brother went fox hunting and practiced falconry. Rather than sitting on the knee of some shopping mall Santa Claus at Christmastime, they romped in their own living room with a crimson-clad John Steinbeck, the novelist’s face swaddled in white cotton wool. Other houseguests included Carson McCullers, Peter O’Toole, Deborah Kerr, and Montgomery Clift. And yet Huston never tarries over the stars in her midst – to her, after all, they were just her parents’ friends, nobody special – preferring to focus her attention on the odd little gems of experience that adorned her youth: playing tag with her brother in the shell of a Norman castle, eating Yorkshire pudding on the beach, and searching the Irish countryside for Marlon Brando in the midst of a torrential rainstorm.

Huston yearned to be an actress from an early age but was, for years, too shy to make her ambition known. Her father, eventually intuiting her interest, gave her the lead in his 1969 film A Walk with Love and Death, when she was seventeen. Rather than launching Huston’s career, however, the film nearly sunk it before it got out of the dock. Huston had no acting experience at that point, found taking direction from her father difficult, and was completely unprepared to play a fourteenth-century maiden. The reviews were nearly uniformly negative, singling Huston out for particular scorn. In one exceptionally vicious article, critic John Simon wrote, “There is a perfectly blank, supremely inept performance … by [John] Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, who has the face of an exhausted gnu, the voice of an unstrung tennis racket, and a figure of no describable shape.”2 The shame of the experience scared Huston away from acting for the next dozen years. Her tall, reedy frame brought her some modeling work, but she spent most of the 1970s simply hopping from one party to the next. That is, until Tony Richardson told her she was wasting her life.

As Lily Dillon in The Grifters (screenshot)

It’s hard to imagine Huston ever being so uncertain or insecure; on the screen, she so often exudes confidence. As an actress, she has a way of seeming indomitable even when she’s doing (or saying) very little. She barely breathes a word when she first appears at the end of the hallway in Enemies a Love Story (1989), but the mere sight of her sends Ron Silver scurrying backward, as if stung with a cattle prod. She has much the same effect on John Cusack in The Grifters, sauntering into his arms for a mother-son kiss. Cusack is all aquiver, simultaneously turned on and repulsed, but Huston is as cool as a cobra, her lips turned up by a mischievous grin, her every stride across the room elegant and fluid as she hypnotizes him for the kill. She just had that effect on men.

She was never classically beautiful, at least by Hollywood’s exaggerated standards: a few too many sharp angles on her face, a few too many vertical inches on her frame. But Huston learned, early on, how to use these disadvantages to her benefit. “You’re a tall and imposing girl,” an acting teacher told her at the beginning of her career. “When you ask for something, you don’t need to extend your hand. You have our attention.”3 Hence her languorous seduction of Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor (1985), stretched out on an Oriental rug: “You wanna do it, Chah-ley?” She gives her character, Maerose Prizzi, a husky Brooklynese purr that slinks from the side of her mouth, carrying with it a faint hint of condescension. She’s seducing Nicholson, of course, but she’s mocking him, too, as a member of the dumber sex. For the first, and perhaps only, time in his career, Nicholson’s face bears no trace of Cheshire cat. Indeed, beneath Huston’s challenging gaze, he looks positively sheepish.

In these roles, Huston has a hauteur that is somewhat reminiscent of Bette Davis in her prime, and for this reason she has, like Davis, often been cast a vamp or a viper. (She reveals, in Watch Me, that she was offered the role of sadistic Annie Wilkes in Misery [1990] but turned it down to do The Grifters instead.) Yet she can just as easily be brittle, as she was in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), or bighearted, as she was in Lonesome Dove (1989). Robert Duvall’s level of charm is so off the charts in Lonesome Dove that he could only be paired with an equally captivating female. We have to believe that Duvall’s character, Gus, would, without a moment’s hesitation, choose Clara (Huston) over Lorie (Diane Lane), the latter of whom, besides being slavishly devoted to Gus, is almost certainly the most beautiful creature west of the Mississippi. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Huston is more than up to the task. Though she can’t compete with Lorie’s looks, Clara exudes such warmth and moxie that one can easily see how she, not Lorie, roped the heart of this affable old rake. Huston is one of those actors – Chris Cooper is another, as is Judy Davis – who always find ways to make even the smallest parts come to life. Consider, for instance, her role in A Handful of Dust (1989), based on the Evelyn Waugh novel. Though her character, Mrs. Rattery, is little more than a passerby in the story proper, Huston manages, in her few moments onscreen, to bring her into sharp focus, retaining the character’s blunt imperiousness from the novel but adding a touch of warmth that Waugh was generally loath to bestow on his characters. At one moment the camera lingers on Huston’s face as she regards poor Tony Last (James Wilby) – cuckolded husband, bereaved father, and would-be jungle explorer soon to be trapped in the Amazon for the rest of his life – and though she says nothing, you can see by the look on her face that she may be the only person in the whole movie who has any sympathy for this hapless fellow.

The two volumes of Huston’s memoirs link arms in the spring of 1973, when Huston was not yet twenty-two, right around the time her relationship with Jack Nicholson began. Having relished the first volume, I eagerly tore into the second, only to find myself confronted with precisely the type of featherweight reminiscences that I had (quite unnecessarily) dreaded when I picked up A Story Lately Told. Though Watch Me covers twice as much territory as its predecessor, and includes many more anecdotes and characters, the journey through it feels emptier and more arid. Consider, for instance, this statement about her Oscar-winning role in Prizzi’s Honor, in which she was directed by her father: “For Dad and me, it was proof that if you believe in each other, are willing to risk humiliation, and put your heart on the line, miracles can happen.”4 Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first began awarding gold statuettes in 1929, film folk have been granted a very prestigious, public forum for uttering such saccharine banalities, but having already done so once, Huston shouldn’t have tried to reprise her Oscar speech – which was, by the way, relatively subdued and concise as these things go – within the pages of her autobiography.

And what does Huston have to say about her fellow thespians? Very little, it turns out. Afraid to step on any famous toes, she resorts to the old Hollywood dodge, familiar to anyone who’s seen a celebrity interviewed on The Tonight Show, of lavishing praise on everyone. A few examples, taken more or less at random:

John Cusack: “great to work with” (p. 217); Sam Neill: “empathetic and lovely to work with” (p. 279); Robert Duvall: “a prince to work with, as was Tommy Lee Jones” (p. 201); Jennifer Jason Leigh: “one of my favorite actresses” (p. 278); Glenne Headly: “an actress I love and admire” (p. 201); Melanie Griffith: “It was never hard to love Melanie” (p. 270); Drew Barrymore: “extremely intuitive and sensitive.” (p. 292).

Even on those rare occasions when she does offer a gentle rebuke, she has to offset it with a compliment of at least equal weight. Christopher Lloyd is “monosyllabic,” but she kindly adds, “I put this down to his being a really good character actor” (p. 242). Gene Hackman behaves quite rudely toward Wes Anderson, the director of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but this too has an explanation: “I think he [Hackman] was just furious at having this youth telling him what to do” (p. 311). The problem here isn’t just that Huston’s descriptions of her fellow actors and filmmakers are too guarded but that that’s all she seems to have to say about them. She could quite easily have expatiated on what makes Stephen Frears “a master storyteller” (p. 217) without revealing anything unflattering about Stephen Frears as a person. Instead, all she gives us is this: “I learned a lot from working with him. He always upped my game” (p. 217). Well, that tells us a lot.

And yet she expends countless paragraphs recounting parties and gatherings of stars. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. As a literary subject, party going has been treated at length by everyone from Marcel Proust to Henry Green. For this very reason it should be handled delicately, so as not to sound hackneyed or trite. The precise details must be chosen to set the scene. David Niven, the dapper English star of yesteryear, clearly understood this when he put his life to paper:

The Colonel tottered from the room followed by the survivors who then indulged in a monstrous barging match, punctuated by wild cries, which passed for Highland reels. These in turn further deteriorated into a competition to see who, by using the furniture, could make the fastest circuit of the ante room without touching the floor. Trubshawe, Pleydell-Bouverie, Kelburn and I left in some alarm when a visiting air commodore ate a champagne glass whole, stem and all, and the majors decided to have a competition to see which one could pick up a box of matches off the floor with his teeth while balancing a bottle of champagne on his head.5

P.G. Wodehouse, were he describing the bacchanal above, couldn’t have done much better. (Even the names Trubshawe and Pleydell-Bouverie sound almost too Wodehousian to be real.) Huston takes a more cautious and conventional approach:

Back then most of the action took place at people’s homes. Roddy McDowall was another dedicated host; he brought together stars as brilliant and diverse as Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen O’Hara, Vincent Price, and Gene Autry and matched them with up-and-comers like Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp. Roddy’s Tudor house was right down the hill from Mulholland, in the Valley. It always felt like Christmas at his place – lots of dark wood and low-beamed ceilings and an extraordinary collection of items, awards, objects, photographs, and memorabilia, and a beautiful garden that he tended himself. (p. 165)

Notice the name-dropping: Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen O’Hara, Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp, etc. Rather than describing an event, Huston will all too often simply list the celebrities who attended, making her stories read like pages ripped out of People magazine. Indeed, at one point, she actually excerpts seven paragraphs from the Daily News to describe a fete for Princess Margaret that she attended. Why should we be made to read the Daily News’s account of the event when our own author was on the inside?

But it was when Huston began detailing the doings of her pets that I sent my copy of her book fluttering across the room. I was tempted to do the same after about her tenth sartorial digression, but at least clothes have some relevance to her work. She recalls, for instance, finding the essence of Clara Allen, her character in Lonesome Dove, in the wardrobe truck. A woman with a lame husband, tending a homestead on the plains, would, she reasoned, naturally wear “work boots, men’s shirts, a duster, and a beat-up cowboy hat,” and thus Clara’s sturdy, no-nonsense fortitude was born (p. 202). Huston records similar discoveries occurring during the making of Prizzi’s Honor, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and The Addams Family (1992), in each case finding the texture of her character through her clothes. The same, however, cannot be said of her collection of dogs, horses, and feral felines, whose place in her autobiography seems indulgent at best.

With Diane Lane (right) in Lonesome Dove

What’s particularly vexing about this is that Huston, in the first volume of her memoirs, displays such skill – to borrow a phrase from John Updike – in giving the mundane its beautiful due.6 The opening twenty-five years of her life were nowhere near as action-packed as the following forty, but they are rendered so expertly that they seem infinitely more fascinating by comparison. In A Story Lately Told, she deftly captures the complexity of her relationship with her father, a man she clearly both loved and feared. He could be affectionate and playful, but he was also capable of withering criticism, pulling few punches, even with his children. He was also supremely oblivious of the feelings of others. These contradictory characteristics are well limned in a scene that Huston records occurring in Rome, circa 1964, when she was first introduced to her half-brother, Danny. Her father had kept Danny’s existence a secret from Anjelica and her brother Tony (though not their mother) for a full two years before deciding to share the good news, an act he performed with his inimitable blend of thoughtless indifference and impish glee:

Dad clapped his hands together as if scarcely able to contain his excitement. “Sit down, kids!” he commanded. Tony and I sat apart, stiffly, in wary expectation. “I’ve got some great news,” said Dad.

After a long dramatic pause, a heroic grin lit up his face. “You have a little brother!” It hung in the air for a moment like a dead fish.

I ran out of the suite into the nearest bathroom and locked the door. I was shaking. Finally I let Betty in and sobbed onto the shoulder of the mink-jacket. “I hate him, I hate him.”

Huston and Tony are then whisked to an apartment where, still in shock, they meet their younger brother for the first time.

A small child was on all fours in the living room, barking. Dad thought it was hysterical that the toddler was acting like a dog, and kept telling him what a good little doggy he was…I looked at him [Danny] with unconcealed hatred, and at under two years old, my baby brother, Danny, lifted his little hand and made a bear paw with it as he growled right back at me.7

Ricki Soma on the cover of Life magazine, June 9, 1947

Huston does an equally fine job of bringing her mother to life on the page, evoking her (well-attested) vibrancy, as well as the frustration she felt at having her life subsumed by that of her famous husband. Ricki Soma was twenty-three years younger than John Huston, and barely out of her teens when they wed, little expecting that she’d spend the next decade packed away in the Irish countryside. She’d been a ballet dancer before she got married, and dreamed of one day becoming an actress. Her husband, however, never offered her a part in any of his films. Eventually they came to what Huston concludes was “an understanding”: Ricki would care for the house and the children, as well as ignoring John’s blatant infidelities, as long as he provided the money necessary and, in turn, ignored her own romantic liaisons.8 This arrangement, naturally, confused their young daughter: “I knew that men and women sometimes shared a bedroom, but I had never seen my parents do this, and I had no way of knowing what went on in other households.”9 When, in 1969, Ricki was killed in a car crash in Italy, Huston was devastated. The two were particularly close – in photographs from the late sixties, they look more like twin sisters than mother and daughter – and the frequent references to “Mum” throughout both volumes of Huston’s memoirs reveal how much her mother continues to live in her memory. The fact that Huston can, nonetheless, write critically about their relationship – about her mother’s dependence on her father, and her own inability, as a teenager, to accept Ricki’s need for sexual companionship outside of marriage – only makes the portrait more vivid:

I couldn’t acknowledge the fact that my mother had lovers. Because to me, how could you even compare them with Dad? My father was a different cut. A swashbuckler, great-hearted and larger than life. He was intelligent and ironic, with a warm voice like whiskey and tobacco. I believe that without Dad to give shape to her existence, my mother didn’t really know what to do or who to be.10

The closest Huston comes to such complexity in Watch Me is her rendering of her seventeen-year relationship with Jack Nicholson. Like her father, Nicholson was a bon vivant and an extrovert, capable of great kindnesses as well as blatant insensitivity. He didn’t need special occasions to buy her lavish gifts – jewels, for instance, or a Mercedes convertible – but he was equally casual about his infidelities. “Oh, Toots, it was just a mercy fuck,” he tells her after going to bed with an ex-girlfriend.11 Huston recalls that she eventually began wearing the strange articles of women’s clothing she found abandoned around Nicholson’s house to see if anyone would notice, and partook in a number of affairs herself, including one with actor Ryan O’Neal, which ended when O’Neal turned physically abusive. Needless to say, the stories of Nicholson’s concupiscence are hardly news. What’s surprising is how little bitterness there is to be found in Huston’s reminiscences. She recalls her years with Nicholson not with scorn or hurt pride but with what appears to be genuine fondness, speaking of him the way one might a wayward but adorable child. And she’s self-aware enough to notice the parallels between her love life and that of her mother. “I was in a replica of my parents’ relationship,” she writes early in the book, a thought to which she returns at its end: “[My mother] had neither explained my father’s dalliances to me nor openly displayed her pain. She had held so much within, and I was following her construct.”12

Huston’s subsequent marriage to the sculptor Robert Graham never quite reaches the depth. The pair wed in 1992, and the first years of their relationship were, at least in Huston’s recounting, idyllic. So it comes as something of a surprise when, seemingly out of the blue, she confesses to having begun an on-set romance with an Irish lad during the making of Ever After (1998). Whence came these marital woes? The surprise here isn’t so much the appearance of trouble in paradise as the suddenness of its arrival. Having kept so much about her marriage to Graham in the dark, Huston leaves her readers to catch up on their own when she flicks on the lights.

Anjelica Huston and Danny Huston at the 62nd Academy Awards. Photo by Alan Light. Reproduced courtesy of the photographer and Wikimedia Commons.

It is rather a shame, too, that Huston doesn’t spare some time to contemplate the long arc of her career. Unlike most Hollywood leading ladies, she did not begin her career until she was in her mid-thirties, and it reached its apogee when she was nearly a decade older than that. And yet, like all too many women who earn their living before the camera, she has had to endure the inevitable reduction of screen time that comes with advancing age. Surely she’s noticed the diminution of the roles she’s offered. Not all that long ago she sat at the center of films like The Witches (1990), The Perez Family (1995), and Agnes Browne (1999), the last of which she also directed. Now she’s invariably shuffled off to the side, usually in the role of someone’s mother, as she was in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and 50/50 (2011), while her aging male costars, such as Bill Murray, Liam Neeson, and Pierce Brosnan, get to continue basking in the spotlight. Certainly, she is as – or more – versatile than any of the men mentioned above, and it would be neither self-centered nor self-pitying for Huston to say a few words about how she’s dealt with the diminishing demand for her talents within her profession.

One of the few career reflections that Huston does offer comes at the very end of Watch Me. “I have never felt that the camera automatically loved me,” she writes, “but in a way this forced me to develop my career as a character actress, which has enabled me to do the work that gives me the most pleasure.”13 It’s too bad that Watch Me, unlike A Story Lately Told, doesn’t offer more self-analysis of this kind. Though she may not have always felt that the camera loved her, she has never shown it onscreen. You need only observe her for a few moments – say, haughtily sweeping into the seaside hotel in The Witches or raging at Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors or gazing mournfully up the stairwell in The Dead – to see that she commands the camera’s attention completely and with seeming effortlessness. She has the ability, at such moments, to reveal more in a glance or the delivery of a line than in the entire 389 pages of Watch Me. “Dad always used to say, ‘It never happens in quite the same way twice,’” she writes at the end of that book.14 How true, in memoirs, as well as movies.

References

Grobel, Lawrence. The Hustons: The Life and Times of a Hollywood Dynasty. Updated Edition. New York, Cooper Square Press. 2000.

Huston, Anjelica. A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York. New York: Scribner, 2011.

Huston, Anjelica. Watch Me: A Memoir. Scribner. New York: Scribner, 2014.

Niven, David. The Moon’s a Balloon: Reminiscences. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971.

Updike, John. The Early Stories: 1953-1975. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

  1. Huston, Watch Me, p. 127. []
  2. Grobel, p. 607. []
  3. Huston, Watch Me, p. 128. []
  4. Ibid., p. 155. []
  5. Niven, p. 76 []
  6. Updike, The Early Stories, p. xv. []
  7. Huston, A Story Well Told, p. 147. []
  8. Ibid., p. 55. []
  9. Ibid., p. 73. []
  10. Ibid., p. 149. []
  11. Huston, Watch Me, p. 21. []
  12. Ibid., pp. 32, 170. []
  13. Ibid., p. 382. []
  14. Ibid. []