John's Legend, Anjelica's Legacy
Originally published in Visions Magazine.
Hollywood does an excellent job of portraying the importance of fathers in their
offspring's lives. Public fascination with famous film families -- Fonda,
Bridges, Barrymore, Sheen, Douglas, et.al. -- serves as a fair indication of the
power of their patriarchs. At the 1991 Academy Awards, Billy Crystal introduced
one celebrity child as a character from a storybook: "Once upon a time there was
a talented actor who won an Oscar, and he had a talented son who won an Oscar,
and he had a talented daughter who won an Oscar and may do so again
tonight: ladies and gentlemen, happily ever after, here is Anjelica Huston."
Yet this happy ending is no indication of the heroine's success, for Anjelica
Huston has been framed by similar fairy tales all her life. Occasionally she even
seems grim about it. Granddaughter of Walter, daughter of John, Anjelica is
presented not just as an acclaimed actress but (in her brother Tony's words) as
"the closest thing to a queen you'll get in Los Angeles." Contrary to
expectations, Anjelica's success emerges not from her connections but in spite of
them. For the past several years, often in opposition to her promoters, she has
been rewriting her family legend in order to avoid being scripted by it. Although
she was born a consummate insider, she has been playing roles -- onscreen and off
-- which operate against Hollywood patriarchy at both the familial and
Every actress must contend with the chauvinism of the film industry, which
perpetuates the production of movies that use actresses as little more than set
dressings. Anjelica must contend as well with the macho legend of her own family.
John Huston's reputation for seducing women, terrifying coworkers, and hunting
rare animals threatened to eclipse even his formidable fame as a filmmaker.
Anjelica's own career often garners less interest than her lifelong role as
John's creation. Her link to John tends to be downplayed only by those who
emphasize instead her past relationship with superstar Jack Nicholson.
This is a lot of baggage for one woman to carry, but I have no interest in
psychoanalyzing her; other journalists have already tried extensively, based on
limited comments she has made about how her background carries over into her
roles. I might as well confess that I've seen almost every interview Anjelica
Huston gave in the past five years; I was originally doing research on her
father, and became a fan of hers. But I have rarely enjoyed her public
appearances. It has been disturbing to watch her become disconcerted, then
annoyed, and finally silent as ABC's Barbara Walters or Entertainment
Tonight's Chantal pointedly ignored her recent work and discussed her father
Anjelica -- and her publicists -- have undoubtedly been loath to discourage such
links, since her greatest successes have come playing characters which critics
could link to her offscreen life. Biographer Lawrence Grobel credited her with
posing as Maerose Prizzi during publicity for the family film noir Prizzi's
Honor: "Anjelica cunningly couched her comments within the framework of the
part that brought her such acclaim." She gamely discussed her father's death
after The Dead; following her much-publicized breakup with Jack Nicholson,
she tolerated interviewers asking whether she felt an affinity with the woman she
played in Enemies, A Love Story whose husband, like Jack, fathered another
woman's child. Anjelica has increasingly shied away from discussing her personal
life and resisted attempts by reporters to script her. Many of the roles she has
chosen, including sorceresses, seductresses, and scary women, have helped her to
erase her public image as dutiful daughter.
But the roles do not always help. During publicity for Stephen Frears' The
Grifters, three prominent film writers -- The New Yorker's Pauline
Kael, The New York Times' Betsy Sharkey, and American Film's David
Thomson -- independently created a narrative around the 1990 film in which the
protagonists were not the characters Lilly Dillon and her son Roy, but Anjelica
and her father. Kael, Sharkey, and Thomson (plus their numerous imitators)
repeatedly linked Lilly, Anjelica's amoral character in The Grifters, with
Noah Cross, John's amoral character in Chinatown. Kael also drew
comparisons among the conclusions of The Grifters and two of John's
movies, The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
She noted that the final shot of Anjelica resembles that of Mary Astor in the
1941 landmark film noir, and (in a real stretch) added that unlike in the 1948
western, The Grifters' "treasure" is gathered up. Thus scripted by Kael,
Sharkey, and Thomson, Anjelica's performances are always overshadowed by the
specter of John.
At their most offensive, reporters attribute Anjelica's power as a performer to
her family or her psychology rather than her skill. Thomson's article, which won
an industry award, stated that "she waits for directors to recognize her strange
and flexible ability," implying that she is both passive and in need of guidance,
and contradicting Anjelica's own insistence that she -- not her agent, publicist,
or directors -- controls her career decisions. Kael, who gave her only slightly
more credit, said that Anjelica's powerful presence "seems related to the economy
of her acting." Both writers indicated that Anjelica's background sparked their
interest more than her work. Thomson made outrageous remarks like "She is aroused
when she talks about her father" as a pretext to discussing Chinatown, a
1974 film in which the character played by John Huston commits incest with his
daughter. Reporters still ask Anjelica about Chinatown because of the
situation director Roman Polanski described: "Anjelica came to visit [during]
that scene with Jack Nicholson when John asks him, 'Do you sleep with my
daughter?' And Anjelica was watching and she turned and walked away." Despite the
obvious discomfort of the performers, entertainment writers exploited the
titillating on- and offscreen connection. Thus was Anjelica permanently cast into
a film in which she did not appear.
A similar "joke" occurred in Prizzi's Honor which established Anjelica --
like the character she portrayed -- as the recalcitrant heir to a powerful
dynasty. Again, part of the interest in the 1985 film stemmed from public
knowledge about the offscreen relationships, creating the voyeuristic pleasure of
watching the family. John directed; Anjelica played the daughter of a Mafia don;
Jack played her lover, the don's right arm. When People hyped the movie in
a cover story by playing on the real to reel world slippage, the stars played
along. Anjelica maintained that she had an unusual amount of autonomy for an
actress, making her own costume decisions and influencing the director, but her
Oscar was a tribute to her performance not only as a Prizzi but as a Huston.
Although she thought that since John did not win the Best Director award, "There
couldn't have been a clearer statement from the Academy: You won it on your own,"
the linkage continued. Three years after John died, Parade ran a feature
about Anjelica: "How One Woman Emerged From the Shadow of a Powerful Father."
Conscious of media hunger for links between her father and herself, Anjelica was
ready for the press when The Grifters was released. "There's a line in
Chinatown which is my father's: 'Given the right circumstances, people
will do anything.' And that's very much how I felt about Lilly,'" she (mis)quoted
to Sharkey. Yet despite the affinities between Chinatown and The
Grifters highlighted by many critics, Anjelica pointed out a major
difference: in The Grifters, the female character has real power, for
Lilly dominates the film. Anjelica assumed Lilly's power by performing the part
at a number of press junkets, revealing that her most powerful moment of empathy
with Lilly came during the first take of the last scene with John Cusack. As she
explained to Sharkey, "All of a sudden I saw Johnny in my arms: I saw him in my
arms as a boy, and I saw him as a baby." The anecdote had immediate appeal for
pop-psychoanalytic writers like Thomson, who suggested that Anjelica's personal
affinities may have been too much for her to exorcise -- the plot reflecting her
life with Jack Nicholson, and "another queer echo of Chinatown."
But by forcing them to focus on her character's power as a mother, Anjelica
successfully prevented Sharkey and Thomson from scripting her once again as a
daughter. The writers played up the connections between her and Lilly, allowing
the role's strength to reflect upon Anjelica. This deliberate manipulation of her
public life and private stories permitted the actress to rewrite the scripts
reporters came prepared for her to perform. Thomson seemed unaware of the moments
when she took control of the interview from him, rejecting his assumption that
Lilly must have been very difficult for her to play and forcing him to compare
Lilly not to Noah Cross but to women on welfare.
Anjelica's greatest triumph lies in her admirable if not always successful
struggle to rework the patriarchal Huston legend. Her selection of roles reflects
a desire to parallel her screen images with the persona she cultivates. Because
she often plays angry, independent women, she risks appearing unsympathetic.
Thomson noted that "a smart agent might have advised against" parts like Tamara
in Enemies, A Love Story, Miss Ernst in The Witches, or Clara in
Lonesome Dove, but Anjelica has said that these tough women empowered her.
While American Film called her performance in The Grifters "the
scariest performance ever by an actress" and New York noted that few
studio heads were "dying to take Huston to lunch," Anjelica seemed pleased about
their unease; as she told interviewer Larry King, "I hope I intimidate them."
Emphasizing her ironic marginalization in celebrity culture with statements like,
"I don't fit many people's ideal of the sweet American woman," she illustrates
the extent to which all women in film are restricted by the limited roles
available to them, onscreen and off.
It is difficult to know the extent to which her publicist and agent shape
Anjelica's public front, but it is clear that she rebels when it is suggested
that anyone other than herself now controls her agenda. In cases when
interviewers have forced her to discuss her family, she has become humorless,
closed and uncooperative, such as during her testy feature on Barbara Walters'
1991 special. She kept her recent wedding private and paparazzi-free, a marked
change from the publicity-event weddings of many celebrities. Following the
Rodney King trial, she surprised many with her swift and controversial political
involvement as she spearheaded a protest within hours of the verdict and
encouraged violent responses to racism.
Anjelica's refusal to play along suggests that other actresses can also subvert
the system from within. Younger actresses from Nicole Kidman to Brooke Smith have
called her a role model. And that position may finally eclipse her most famous
role thus far -- the role of Anjelica Huston, daddy's girl.