Today: Anjelica Huston
Anjelica Huston's played so many memorable roles that I wish I'd called this series Take Ten.
The Witches and The Dead are essential Huston: key performances in two wildly differing films; both minor gems of their genres. As, respectively, the Grand High Witch and mournful Gretta Conroy she couldn’t have been more different, and in both she showed immense versatility. Essential, too, are Enemies: A Love Story and Prizzi’s Honor: an Oscar nod for the former; a win for the latter. (Nathaniel wrote about Mae Rose Prizzi previously - and the Grand High Witch, too.)
For Wes Anderson she played three independent women: two estranged wives in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and a strange mother in The Darjeeling Limited. The Addams Family's Morticia parts are a double-bill of the joyfully macabre. The two uncredited blink-and-miss-them appearances in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Frances are early career curiosities, and Daddy Day Care, Material Girls and Martian Child are all likely recent bill-paying gigs. There’s also solid supporting work in A Handful of Dust, Lonesome Dove, The Crossing Guard, Buffalo ’66 and Seraphim Falls - and more besides. (Either of these last two very nearly took Choke’s place.)
Take One: A mother’s ruin
The film's episodic plot is as ramshackle as the novel’s, and via this we get interwoven scenes of Huston as the wayfaring Ida J. Mancini, Victor’s (Sam Rockwell) irresponsible yet haphazardly complex mother. In present day she’s bed-ridden, losing her grip and her mind, being looked after in a nursing home. And as Victor ponders his ancestry throughout the film - between his choking cons and sex addiction - we get intermittent slices of his early life, where Ida constantly re-kidnaps him from various foster parents and traipses him from state to state - graffitiing maps, releasing lions from zoos - doling out her unique life lessons, and all the time hiding from him who his father was. Ida’s a combatant in life and a keeper of secrets until (very nearly) the end.
Huston as Ida J. Mancini in Choke
Ida’s a great part for Huston. It’s perhaps an easy part for her, but indicative of her leftfield role choices. (She can do this type of role in her sleep, but they’re no less fun or compulsive to watch.) She makes a resounding impact, especially as we get to see two sides, two distinct angles, to Ida: young and old, carefree and dependent, lively and stationary. The narrative intercutting adds emotional structure, but Huston adds a poignancy not always discernible in the book. She instills in the older Ida a sad believability; and gives younger Ida a bullshit-free spiritedness. (It’s often all too easy for a great many actors to succumb to the clichés of “acting old” or “doing zany” - Huston swerves them with aplomb).
On the road again: Huston and Jonah Bobo in Choke
We’re never explicitly told the reasons for Ida’s serial abandonment or the root of her problems, but Huston’s layered and thoughtful performance suggests a tantalising grab-bag of possibilities as to why Ida is the way she is. She finds the right tone for her somewhere between absurdity and dignity. It's a given that Huston makes Ida memorable from the moment she first appears on screen. She gave Choke an extra dimension of watchability. But then again, she’s had ample experience in imparting intricate and captivating characterisation over thirty-three years of exemplary acting.
Take Two: Murder, she wrote
I wanted to include one of Huston's roles for Woody Allen - either Crimes and Misdemeanors or Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - as in both she did some of her best character work. (She was Bafta-nominated in Supporting Actress for both - although won for neither.) In Crimes she’s Dolores Paley, Martin Landau's doomed mistress: she was excellent but her character was often sidelined (due to the story’s structural conceit); but in Mystery, as Marcia Fox, Larry Lipton’s (Allen) snooping co-conspirator and poker mate, she essayed a solid, bona-fide character part. Huston doesn’t have many scenes but makes the most of her screen time. Marcia was certainly the stronger character of the two for Woody, and more fun to watch. (And Marcia goes some way in proving that Woody’s gal pals are often more interesting than his wives.)
Betting on murder: Huston and Allen in Manhattan Murder Mystery
She’s a novelist client - was waitress, was film critic - of book editor Larry’s, someone his wife (Diane Keaton) thinks he has his bespectacled eye on. Marcia joins in on the couple’s amateur sleuthing - along with their friend, and Marcia’s suitor, Ted, (Alan Alda). She makes apt and accurate use of her profession by dreaming up the - actually plausible - murder scenarios for the group to comically mull over. It’s discernible, from how convincingly Huston inhabits such a slight role with an acute lived-in feel, that Marcia’s had an interesting life. Confident, flirtatious and direct with her body language (quintessential Huston traits), she comes on like a spiky, saucy Jessica Fletcher; solving ridiculous crimes (and misdemeanors), always dressed in black, and ushering in the plot’s denouement with a slapstick idea for the killer’s capture (“when I come back from the ladies’ room I’ll tell you how to trap him!”); then relaying in flashback how it all happened like a pro. Marcia needed a spin-off project all her own.
I agree with Alan Alda, when he says: “I like this woman - she’s lurid.”
Take Three: In it for the long haul
Movie characters in a tight fix wanting (or having) to alter their appearance as a kind of get-away-free procedure, usually do so toward the end of the film, after the shit has hit the fan. But, with an impersonal poise and rigid posture, Lilly enters The Grifters’ bruising, unforgiving world as a woman who’s been constantly evading detection her whole life; her appearance pre-altered before the events of its narrative unfold. (What was her life like before?) The cheap, yet still glamorous, get-up she wears is like a front for the crooks and a disguise for the cops.
Lilly’s a mother in name, but not in nature. Her feelings for and about her son Roy (John Cusack), maternal or, particularly, otherwise leave a lot to be desired, shall we say? The blame is hers. But all that’s just a consequence of a lifetime of wrong, another part of her tough-luck tale she doesn’t particularly need to retell. In the world of pulp-noir Lilly could be a direct descendant of Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat: both got burned by the men in their lives; both got their revenge. But only Lilly’s left with a survivor’s internal scars - deeper and more searing than the reminder on her hand.
She gambles with others’ feelings to mask her own. But when it counts you can’t say she’s not protective or that she doesn’t care (but for what reason?). When she sees Roy, for the first time in a long time, he’s in hospital with near-fatal internal bleeding (like mother like son; Roy’s, too, is a life of con; his short, hers long). She wants him alive and lets the doctor know it in no uncertain terms: “You know who I work for. My son is going to be all right. If not, I'll have you killed.”
Watching Lilly Dillon ceaselessly stalk and fret her way from one chancy engagement to another - phone booth to hotel, racetrack to apartment - induces in us a nerve-shredding restlessness; her anxiety is infectious. But that’s the way Huston plays it; she motors the movie and takes us along for the ride, making us passengers, turning us into unwilling accomplices. She’s rootless too. There doesn’t seem to be a place where Lilly feels settled. She doesn’t really belong anywhere. Certainly not California; she doesn’t do California. Well, unless money or old ties draw her in - or when Pat Hingle (as the brilliantly named Bobo Justus) uses his own horribly persuasive brand of fruit- or cigar-based manipulation.
Huston successfully manages to transfer both Lilly’s subtle mannerisms (twitchy chain-smoking, deceptively vacant glare, her “Los Ang-Gleez”) and her grandest, fiercest altercations through a veil of life-eroding, nervy apprehension. She sizes up race odds with the same penetrating, hungry stare as she sizes up her marks and targets - including Roy and his squeeze, Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Her eyes are directly fixed on the prize, unless she’s not getting what she wants; then they soften and we see a glimpse of Lilly as she likely was before she got ensnared in the long con - if there were indeed ever a time when she wasn’t grifting the odds, putting in a fix. It’s not a good idea to be caught up in Lilly Dillon’s world, but watching it unfurl from afar is a vicarious thrill. Huston’s tremendous performance ensures we’re right there anyway. She plays it as if it were a soul-stripping game of poker.
Addendum - a few extra notes from Craig
Nathaniel on Anjelica Huston in The Witches (1990)
Prizzi's Honor 25th Anniversary (1985)