Sunday, August 01, 2010

Take Three: Anjelica Huston

Craig here with a new Take Three

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

In recent years, as with many actresses of a certain age - who Hollywood perhaps doesn’t know quite what to do with - Huston’s taken on that over-50’s female staple: the mother role. But unlike many of her contemporaries she’s not fallen foul of the usual pitfalls in playing mum. (See the Anderson triple.) Huston’s most recent atypical mother was for Clark Gregg in 2006’s Chuck Palahniuk adaptation, Choke.

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

Dressed in sharp, anonymous suits - either blood-red or off-white to match her mood or masquerade - and with a tight peroxide perm that barely moves (whether or not it’s tethered by a matching headscarf), even when she’s trembling from adrenaline or nerves, Huston’s presence as long-time matriarch of con, Lilly Dillon, in Stephen Frears’ 1991 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters is impossible to forget. As I watched the film again this week I was reminded just how magnetic, ferocious and daring Huston is in the role. It’s arguably her very best performance; but with Huston we’re spoilt for choice. Lilly's certainly the most complicated woman she’s played.

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.

Further Reading?
Addendum - a few extra notes from Craig
Nathaniel on Anjelica Huston in The Witches (1990)
Prizzi's Honor 25th Anniversary (1985)


Dan said...

...she was terrifying in The Witches. Couldn't sleep for weeks after watching that movie.

Franco Marciano said...

I didn't even recognize her as the Supreme Leader in "Captain Eo". "The Witches" was my introduction to Ms. Houston, unforgettable role!

Anonymous said...

Ditto on The Witches. That scene where she pulls her face off scared the hell out of me as a little boy.

And her performance in The Grifters remains one of the decade's best.

Anonymous said...

I really need to get The Witches on DVD, to me the best children's films have an element of horror and this exemplifies that to a tee! I need more Angelica Houston in my life (and DVD collection) in general.

/3rtfu11 said...

Huston’s name alone sounds so regal in my mouth during boyhood when her biggest commercial projects were created for the general audience. Her dark and statuesque presence inspired many odd alone time moments of imitation. I adore her for being so different.

The first time I became aware of her was watching The Making of Captain EO special that was broadcast on ABC before its official open at both Disney theme parks in the US. After that I never let her name go and boy did it help me when she became The Grand High Witch in The Witches and to follow it up with The Addams Family. My boyhood obsession with her, lead to me getting an autograph copy of Addams Family Values – thanks to having a relative who works in medical office. I didn’t meet her though.

Imagine my shock when I discovered who she was outside of her family friendly films. Jack Nicholson’s woman!

I didn’t know who her father was and to this day I have no real appreciation for the man because I’ve only seen two of his films – Prizzi’s Honor and Annie – the latter was a classic for me as boy and the former was nothing more than a best in show vehicle for Huston. I don’t agree with her Oscar win but had my personal pick would’ve received the statuette she wouldn’t be the media titan super bitch that she is today Oprah Winfrey.

I have yet to see Choke (I have such a crush on Sam) or her two Woody Allen appearances. I own two copies of The Grifters (HBO and Miramax SE); neither video transfer makes me happy.

PS does anyone here know if she’s fully fluent in Spanish? I know her late husband is Mexican and that she spoke some Spanish to Penelope Cruz at the Oscars but I have an idea for her to get back into the Oscar races and that is to do a Pedro Almodovar film. I don’t know if he has a policy about working with non-Spaniards? Almodovar loves character actresses. So you can imagine my heartbreak when he said his favorite American actress is Meryl Streep!

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

I send you air kisses for this entry, one which I have definitely been looking forward to ever since the Miranda Richardson piece. And you are right, we are spoilt with so many choices to highlight in this woman's career. Such a unique screen presence and actress. I would hazard to say that I believe her spiritual successor is Tilda Swinton: tall, imposing, sharp, and intimidating yet completely disarming in her capability to surprise us with warmth and vulnerability.
Tilda is like a white hot flame while Anjelica's a black heated scorcher. Imagine either as Maleficent!

Much love for this write-up and this series!

(And I think she deserved a supporting actress nom for her Ida Mancini, so believable in her presentation of both past and present versions of the same woman and mother.)

ferdi said...

Anjelica Huston in The Grifters gives one of the best performances of all time. Mesmerizing.


badmofo & ferdi -- agreed. She was my choice for the Oscar that year The GRifters and it was made even more "duh. her year!" by The Witches being the same year.

Franco & Craig -- This is the first I'm hearing of her being in CAPTAIN EO. Honestly i had no idea. Or i had forgotten completely because it registers as a shock.

Craig -- i'm glad you picked MMM because I always forget about that movie (and her in it) and then when i'm reminded i'm like OH YEAH, SHE'S SO FUN IN THAT!

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I've yet to see The Grifters, Manhattan Murder Mystery, The Witches, or Prizzi's Honor. Because I suck. But I LURVE her in Ever After, if only because she colors the cruelty and snobbery of the Wicked Stepmother with a painful desperation. Of course, this is most obvious in her introduction, when she cries, "You cannot leave me here!" to her dying husband, but that beautiful moment midway when she answers Drew Barrymore's query as to whether or not she loved the Dead Father with, "Why, I barely knew him." Ooh! Her eyes in that scene! Gimme more, Anjelica, gimme more!

Walter L. Hollmann said...

By which I mean "gimme more Anjelica", sans comma.

adri said...

Anjelica Huston takes the prize for believable accents. For "The Dead", I thought oh, well, she grew up in Ireland, so of course she can sound absolutely Irish, and her family spent years in Mexico, so she can sound Hispanic ("The Perez Family") and "In Enemies, A Love Story" -- no wait, she isn't Eastern European, although it's just SO believable, or a Mafia Princess, or a witch -- she's just great at taking you inside the story.

I feel regret that both she and her brother, Tony Huston, were late acting bloomers. I feel cheated out of years of performances. In Anjelica's case, her father made an artistic mistep when he cast his reluctant teenager of 16 in his film "A Walk With Love and Death". She got the kind of savage reviews only equalled later by Francis Ford Coppola casting his daughter Sofia. Both daughters eventually rebounded, so a vindication of sorts.

chris na Taraja said...

I love Angelica as the mother in THE DARJEELING EXPRESS, when she's sitting in that circle with her boys, it's just priceless.


beautiful write up of the Grifters in general. that performance is a miracle. i've been thinking about it all day due to this post.

Craig Bloomfield said...

As a supplement to today's Take Three, a cheeky addendum if you like, I've posted a few extra (foot)notes on Huston and The Grifters over at my place, Dark Eye Socket:

Craig Bloomfield said...

Jaded Armchair - thank you. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Maybe Swinton will have to be lined up at some point... as you say - another great actress, also with a plethora of great roles to choose from.

Nat - her character in MMM is so well thought out. It's only a small role (something I forgot when I watched it again this week) but Huston creates such a solid, believable character. And Lilly Dillon is one of my favourite performances of all time, amle or female. Top five definitely. She just gets everything perfectly right in the film.

/3rtfu11 said...

And Lilly Dillon is one of my favourite performances of all time, male or female. Top five definitely. She just gets everything perfectly right in the film.


You know who would make a great alternate Lilly Dillon? Sigourney Wear

/3rtfu11 said...


Rose said...

Let's not forget her hilarious cameo in This is Spinal Tap. That whole Stonehenge scene is one of my favorite parts of the movie. "But the napkin - it says 18 inches!"

I have only just recently rediscovered the wonder that is Anjelica Huston while watching The Grifters for the first time. Her wonderful performance led me to seek out more of her movies, and she hasn't disappointed me yet.

Mike M. said...

Thank you so much for this write-up! Anjelica Huston is a goddess, and her Oscar loss for The Grifters stings like a bee to this day. My favorite performance of the entire 90's, and among the best I've ever seen.

I do hope Hollywood comes knocking with an interesting project for her soon. She is one of the most captivating screen presences I've ever witnessed, and I'm hungry to see more great work from her.

mrripley said...

One of My fave of her performances is the crossing guard - i love her 1st confrontation with jack nicholson her ex in the film and she askes him about his daughter's grave gg nom sag nom no oscar nom - why???

Craig Bloomfield said...

/3rtfu11 - Yes, Weaver would've been ace too. Maybe the only other actress who could've done the role. But it was really Huston's to own.

Mike M - no problem, glad you liked it. Agree that she deserves more solid lead parts nowadays. Hope she gets the opp. to do this soon!

sp said...

Yes, she is one of the Best American Actresses working today. It is so ironic, I just watched The Grifters again yesterday . Not only was Huston a force of nature in that film , but also Annette Bening- a true star- making performance. John Cusack is so underrated by his peers, and he deserved a nomination for The Grifters as well. He also deserved a nomination for Say Anything. Cusack is such a natural comedic & dramatic actor- that makes it look so easy. Nathaniel , you need to do a synopsis on Cusack's career. Is he ever going to get an Oscar nomination ??

It kills me to see an over-abundance of brilliant actresses over 40 years old not working often or not getting access to great complex roles & quality scripts. Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Judy Dench, and Susan Sarandon are not the only talented & mature actresses that deserve to work on a regular basis.