Anjelica Huston opens up about her new memoir
The Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica houses memories down to its grouting. Opened in the 1920s, it was a social hub for the flashbulb-dizzy elite of early Hollywood; during WWII, it served as a military retreat where U.S. Navy men could disport and recuperate amid the pools and sands. Later, the building headquartered the rehab clinic–turned–deranged cult Synanon, whose leader was eventually arrested for conspiring to put a four-and-a-half-foot rattlesnake in a lawyer’s mailbox.
This is the location Anjelica Huston has picked for our interview today. “I have a thing for places,” she says. “My memories are mostly tied to spaces and rooms.” Like these rooms, the 63-year-old actress has a lot of stories to tell.
Huston’s new memoir, Watch Me, will appear in stores this week. Written at the intersection of Memory Lane and Hollywood Boulevard, the book is stuffed with clear-eyed recollections of the film and fashion worlds from a born-and-bred member of Tinseltown aristocracy.
If anyone understands those circles, it’s Huston, who wears her celebrity like a favorite coat, evincing a lived-in glamour that can make even George Clooney look like a parvenu. Huston has swum in this fishbowl ever since she first became a model in the late ’60s. That’s where Watch Me picks up, giving the goods on her storied career and a personal life that features an all-star cast in which even the extras end up being people like Helmut Newton and Hunter S. Thompson. This is Huston’s second memoir, following last year’s A Story Lately Told, which revisited her childhood.
“I split it into two books because it felt very distinctly like two separate lives,” says Huston. “Before and after, perhaps.” In Watch Me, the still waters of her Edenic early days in Ireland turn turbulent as she begins her life as a public figure. Many celebrity memoirs are like bags of potato chips—mostly air and a little bit of salty stuff—but Huston wanted to avoid the anodyne politesse or, worse, self-delusion that can make for boring reading.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a confessional, but it does require a certain amount of looking inward,” she says. “If you’re gonna write a memoir, you have to talk about yourself. You have to talk about your feelings and you have to talk about who you are. Otherwise don’t do it; it’s a waste of paper. The trees could have lived.” She wrote much of the material for her books in New York while filming the TV series Smash, churning out the manuscript longhand with a lucky No. 2 pencil and yellow foolscap paper, a suggestion from Lauren Bacall.
Huston doesn’t shy away from grappling with the big themes and transitions in her life, including her on-and-off relationship with Jack Nicholson; an alleged attack by then boyfriend Ryan O’Neal (“He turned on me, grabbed me by the hair and hit me in the forehead with the top of his skull,” she writes); her inadvertent discovery of Roman Polanski’s notorious rape; and the deaths of her father, director John Huston, in 1987, and her husband, Robert Graham, in 2008. The process of writing and promoting her memoirs has put Huston in a rearview mood, and she discusses her life’s narrative with a certain detached honesty, especially when talking about the men who cast their shadows on it. “Most of the men that I was with were considerably older than I was, and I think I was not not under the influence of my father and chasing that man, who was always kind of slightly out of reach,” Huston says, smiling wryly. “Little girls are always in love with their fathers. It’s a big thing.”
Her 17 nonconsecutive (and nonmonogamous) years with Nicholson form the spine for the first half of the book. Huston found the act of writing about the relationship helped her come to terms with it, particularly Nicholson’s allergy to exclusivity. “Writing about it was very much the experience of being with Jack,” she says. “That kind of faint uncertainty of somebody who has an interior life that they’re not necessarily gonna share with you. He could sign his name ‘Your Jack,’ and well, that’s one thing he never was. But that doesn’t stop one from loving somebody; it just makes it a different kind of negotiation. You can have a hard time with somebody and say, ‘That’s it,’ but you have to be able to leave the room, and I was never able to do that.”
Despite her formidable legacy, Huston’s acting career was hardly a foregone conclusion. “I was kind of fatalistic about it,” she says. “I didn’t quite know how it was going to happen, because to all intents and purposes I wasn’t good-looking enough to be in the movies. But I was determined that even if I couldn’t be Brigitte Bardot beautiful or Sophia Loren beautiful, I was gonna be something. I was gonna look like something.”
Determined to avoid the whiff of nepotism, Huston waited seven years after an embarrassing performance in her father’s period romance A Walk With Love and Death before taking another role. “I wanted it to come because of me,” she says. “I didn’t want it to come because of my dad or my boyfriend or who I was with.” Less than a decade later, she was the sole person to take home an Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor despite the fact that both her father and Nicholson had been nominated. That helped put any lingering self-doubt to bed. “It’s a really good instant remedy for ego fortification,” Huston says. “They should give it to dying people; it works wonders.”
In subsequent years she gave diverse performances as a Joycean heroine in The Dead, a murdered mistress in Crimes and Misdemeanors, a platinum-wigged eater of her young in The Grifters, morbid madam Morticia Addams in The Addams Family, and a trio of supporting characters in films by Wes Anderson. “I think my main objective was to work with really good directors because, just like fashion photography, you have that much better chance of getting good pictures,” she says. Most recently, Huston completed filming on the horror-comedy The Master Cleanse, and she’ll start preparing for her Broadway debut in Love Letters once she’s finished her book tour. Earlier this year, she sold the Venice Beach apartment she shared with her late husband, which further spurred her retrospection.
But on to the next chapter, she says. Though Huston won’t rule out another book, she isn’t ready to put a No. 2 pencil to a third memoir just yet. “Maybe,” she says, “but I think I’ll have to live it first.”
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Nov. 14/21 issue.