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Talking with Anjelica Houston

Talking with Anjelica Houston — The actress tells us about her career and how she felt right at home in ”The Addams Family”

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”I hear a lot of that late-bloomer stuff,” Anjelica Huston says, sipping an afternoon Bloody Mary in the lounge of L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel and lighting one in a series of cigarettes. ”But I don’t remember being all that aware of Jessica Lange or Meryl Streep or Glenn Close in their teens.” At the age of 40, when many actresses are starting on a downhill slope, Huston is hitting her wickedly long-legged stride. ”I think it’s fair to say things came together for me in my 30s,” she says, giving a tug on a tight-fitting miniskirt that’s beating a retreat up her thighs, ”but that doesn’t mean that’s when everything happened to me. An actor’s life is a series of progressions, and you get to do different things at different times.”

And different things are what Huston does best. Her current role as the elegantly campy Morticia in the smash hit The Addams Family is only the latest departure in a career studded with them. ”I usually do what I like,” Huston says, cocking one semi-circular brow over her Modigliani features. ”That’s the one thing that ties everything in.” In the decade since she began to be taken seriously as an actress, she has played a lion tamer, a Washington Post reporter, a mafioso’s daughter, a child-hating coven leader, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and a hardened hustler. The common thread has been her intensity, an ability to reveal startling depths of passion, anguish, bitterness, or humor.

”Anjelica has a great vulnerability,” says Martin Landau, who costarred with Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors. ”She’s had her share of pain, and she’s able to tap into that when she works.”

Huston’s most wrenching roles have always been her most successful. In 1986, she received an Academy Award for her portrayal of Maerose, the calmly vengeful mob daughter in Prizzi’s Honor, directed by her father, John Huston, and starring her then boyfriend, Jack Nicholson. She got another nomination for 1989’s Enemies, A Love Story, playing a woman who survives the Holocaust only to discover that her husband has remarried and has both a pregnant wife and a mistress. Last spring she was nominated a third time for her portrayal of Lily, the hard-bitten, platinum-blond con artist in The Grifters, Stephen Frears’ grim tale of small-time hustlers.

Compared with such emotionally draining fare, Morticia is a virtual vacation, and that is exactly what Huston had in mind. ”The Grifters was extremely satisfying, but very hard on the heart,” she says. ”So I was in the mood to do something that didn’t call for quite so much pain.”

On the set, even when the camera isn’t rolling, Huston is Morticia incarnate. Her dress, a black, floor-length number with filmy cuffs that look like old spiderwebs, skates along an impossibly taut hourglass figure. And she doesn’t so much walk as float, gravestone-gray eye shadow forming batwing arches on her ghoulishly pale face. Huston’s sardonic humor is sprinkled like fairy dust over this $30 million undertaking, which gives Charles Addams’ psychically skewed family its first stab at film. ”Much more than the other actors, Anjelica was involved with the whole gestalt of the movie,” says director Barry Sonnenfeld. ”She’s very bright and she always made sure I wasn’t taking the easy way out.” As the doting housewife, a perversely sensual loving mother, Huston luxuriates on her very own torture rack and smiles benevolently as her little darlings play with lightning rods or electric chairs.

”Morticia has a shape only a cartoonist can draw,” says Sonnenfeld, ”so we lashed Anjelica into a metal corset that created this hips-and-waist thing I’ve never seen any woman have in reality.” Huston also got daily gauze eye lifts, neck tucks, and fake nails. ”Come afternoon, I could be prone to a really good headache from my various bondages,” she says. ”And because I couldn’t lie down (in the corset) or rest, it was fairly exhausting.”

”Anjelica’s got Morticia down,” says costar Raul Julia, who plays her enthusiastically infatuated husband, Gomez. ”I see her as a perfect Norman Rockwell mother,” Huston says. ”Just taken to a very dark degree.”

Producer Scott Rudin says Huston was his first choice for the part: ”Cher was interested, but we never considered anyone else.” After reading the script, Huston met with Rudin and Sonnenfeld over breakfast at the Polo Lounge. ”I accepted almost immediately,” she says. ”I’ve known the Charles Addams cartoons since I was a little girl. It was a bathroom book in Ireland (where she was raised), and we used to flip through it. Their life really wasn’t unlike ours growing up.”

In fact, the Huston family could rival the Addamses for mystery and kookiness, if not for nuclear stability.

Huston’s father was almost as famous for his forbidding demeanor and Rabelaisian appetites as for directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon. Her mother, Enrica Soma, known as Ricki, was a former Balanchine ballerina and Huston’s fourth wife. While John was making movies — he was off in the Congo filming The African Queen with Bogart and Hepburn when she was born in 1951 — Anjelica, her brother, Tony, and Ricki were ensconced in a small house on the grounds of St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in Galway, in the western reaches of Ireland. At first the children were taught by tutors, ”but that became very isolating,” Anjelica says, ”so at a certain point I was sent to the Sisters of Mercy nearby.” Because she wasn’t Catholic, ”the nuns were told not to indoctrinate me. Of course, I wanted nothing more than to confess and be confirmed and have Communion. I thought it was the most romantic thing in the world.” In fact, she had plenty of fantasy. ”We lived in a very remote area and there were big storms and a lot of ghosts and ghost stories in our house. We didn’t have TV or any local toy shops, so one spent a lot of time inventing one’s own pastimes — which for me were predominantly new ways of torturing my brother.”

And vice versa. When Anjelica was 7, Tony pitted her against one of his friends in a boxing match on their front lawn. ”His friend being a year older than me and a boy, my two front teeth went flying,” says Huston. As compensation, her father presented her with a pearl the size of the largest tooth. This began a tradition: That Christmas she was given a canary diamond. When she got the measles, ”my father had me measure my largest measle, and he sent me a flawless ruby to match. There were letters back and forth to jewelers to pick just the right stone.”

The jewels, none of which she ever had set, came in lieu of Huston’s actually seeing much of her father. ”He was gone most of the time,” she says. ”He’d come back for a month or so at Christmas and we’d have a great time. Then off he’d go again, and we’d be sad and hang on to his legs and try to stop him.” John Huston’s largess extended beyond his immediate family: When Joan Juliet Buck (now a novelist and Anjelica’s closest friend) spent her first Christmas at St. Clerans as a 10-year-old, she was given a tin can with an oyster in it. Inside the oyster was a pearl. ”That,” says Buck, ”was heavy magic.”

St. Clerans was filled with such magic. When John was in residence he would fill the larger house on the property with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and Peter O’Toole. Jean-Paul Belmondo once showed up with Ursula Andress.

”Ricki encouraged us to be fantastical,” says Buck. ”She was the kind of mother who didn’t care if you used real potter’s clay on the kitchen table — even when we discovered you could make it frizzy by putting it through the tea strainer.” Anjelica and pals would short-sheet the guests’ beds, stick calomine lotion up the bathtub taps, and, covered in ghostly white sheets, ride their horses across the lawn and by the mansion’s windows at night. Household plays were performed — although the 7-year-old Anjelica, playing a witch, stalked off at the start of a scene from Macbeth. ”I don’t like it and I won’t do it,” she announced before disappearing.

As an adult, Huston was more disciplined. ”She’s hardworking and professional and not a prima donna,” says one East Coast casting director. ”She’s a joy,” says Landau, who was her acting coach for a time. ”She’s got a bawdy side, a gutsy side, a fun side, a very hearty laugh side. And she has a very serious side.” James Caan, who played opposite Huston in Gardens of Stone, her only standard ”girlfriend role,” says she’s ”wonderful — real open and just so easy to get along with.”

Such support from her peers has been crucial, because Huston’s rise has occurred in spite of her famous pedigree, not because of it. By the time she was 16, her parents had split and she had moved with her mother to London, where she attended a French lycee. She was into black eye makeup, rock & roll, and late nights out with friends. ”I don’t think I was way over the top,” she says, ”but my father was rather Victorian about it.” Perhaps to keep a closer eye on his daughter, Huston — who was still married to Ricki but had had a son, Danny, with former actress Zoe Sallis — cast Anjelica as the lead in A Walk With Love and Death, a 14th-century coming-of-age romance that is often regarded as the worst movie he — or she — ever made. ”I hated what I was doing,” she says. ”I didn’t enjoy the script or the part. But there was really nothing I could do about it.” During filming she sustained what she still considers her most humiliating moment in acting. ”My father shouted at me for not knowing my lines in front of about 50 people,” she recalls. ”It probably was not undeserved.”

The movie’s reception in 1969 did not make it a humiliation worth suffering. Most reviews were sufficiently savage to prompt Huston’s apology on David Frost’s television show, where she proclaimed herself ”no good, awful.”

But the failure of the movie was nothing in comparison to learning, shortly before its opening, that her mother had been killed at age 39 in a car accident in France. ”It was devastating,” Huston says of the period. ”I was very fragile and extremely unbalanced by the time that whole outing was completed.”

Huston moved to New York, understudied the role of Ophelia in a Broadway production of Hamlet, and began modeling for Vogue, among other magazines. In 1973 she moved to Los Angeles, met Nicholson at a party, and soon moved in with him. Then, ”very slowly, very tentatively,” she began to get back into the family business, doing plays, a few episodes of Laverne & Shirley, small movie parts.

Although her acting was consistently solid, her roles tended to be very low-profile — until Prizzi’s Honor. After working with her in 1984’s The Ice Pirates, a not-too-widely seen space-movie spoof, producer John Foreman suggested her for the role of Maerose to her father, who was set to direct Prizzi. Nicholson then came on board as her ex-boyfriend, the weaselly hit man who gets involved with a stunning hit woman (Kathleen Turner). Making the movie was ”a very pleasant experience for everyone concerned,” Huston remembers. ”It was a family affair.” And when Anjelica won her Oscar, John Huston became the only director to guide both his father (Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and his daughter in Academy Award-winning performances.

As an adult, Huston developed stronger bonds with her father, both professionally and personally. In 1987 the clan reassembled in Valencia, Calif., to shoot The Dead, directed by John from a screenplay by Tony (adapted from the James Joyce story). But that acclaimed production was to be John’s last. Several months later, the family got together again in Newport, R.I., where half-brother Danny was to direct Anjelica, their father, and their half-sister Allegra (Ricki’s daughter by Lord Norwich) in Mr. North, a film based on a Thornton Wilder novel. Anjelica, who was playing a mysterious and enchanting divorcee, says it had the potential of being ”the funnest movie ever.” But at the last minute John, who had been in and out of hospitals with emphysema and other respiratory ailments for several years, became too ill to play the family patriarch and Robert Mitchum was called in to take his place. Shortly after his 81st birthday, Huston died in a rented home near the set. ”That was a brutal time,” says Anjelica, a deep inhalation the only crack in her composure.

”I remember the first time I saw her after John died,” says Buck. ”Her eyes, which used to be hazel, had turned brown. And they’ve stayed that way.”

Not long after her father’s death, Huston’s relationship with Nicholson headed into the homestretch. For 17 years the couple had lived together, split up, lived in separate houses, and reconciled. But in late 1989, in a real-life echo of Enemies, A Love Story, which she’d just completed filming, she learned that Nicholson was having a child with an actress-waitress named Rebecca Broussard. Then, in the December 1989 Playboy, a British starlet gave a graphic description of the affair she’d had with Nicholson. Huston and Nicholson split for good this time, but Huston, who no longer sees or speaks to Nicholson, handled the affair with her usual aplomb.

”If you don’t have anything particularly great to say, why say anything?” she says. ”I don’t think it would have done him or me any good for me to have taken public umbrage.”

During a recent vacation in Europe, Huston and Mexico-born sculptor Robert Graham, 52, whom she began dating a year and a half ago, were engaged. ”I think everyone should be married once,” she cracks. The Venice, Calif.-based Graham, best known for his controversial nude bronze figures, which were commissioned for L.A.’s 1984 Olympics, proposed at Ireland’s Dromoland Castle. ”It had been a long day on the Irish countryside, walking on the Burren, going to a pub with friends,” says Huston. ”We’d just gotten into Dromoland and he threw this box down on the bed and said, ‘So, do you want to get married?”’ Along with a ring, Graham presented her with a pair of ceremonial knives. ”You know,” Huston explains dryly, ”to cut each other’s hearts out if things don’t work out.”

Assuming they do, Huston hopes to have children. ”I love kids,” she says. ”I’m tremendously jealous when I’m around other people’s.” She’s also planning to direct a movie about the life of Maud Gonne MacBride, an English actress and Irish patriot whom she calls ”the Joan of Arc of Ireland.” Born into celebrity, Huston seems unfazed by the growing intensity of her own. She works at her own pace, choosing the projects that appeal to her — whether it’s touring through flea markets, gardening, or making a movie. And, as the MacBride project indicates, she follows her own instincts, not Hollywood’s. ”I haven’t become any different,” says Huston with a laugh. ”I’ve just become older.”