Anjelica Huston, young hearts run free
My whole life I've always had a yearning to communicate. That's what made me an actress. I liked making people laugh. I wanted people to think I was pretty. It was the through line of my existence.
The opening of Anjelica Huston's memoir, A Story Lately Told (out today) has all the elements, and much of the enchantedness of a fairytale. News of her birth makes it's way to her father John Huston in the Belgian Congo, where he is filming The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, like a message from Ivanhoe, by barefoot runner. And throughout her childhood, Huston scampers about the bogs about the family's country manor in County Galway with the skinned knees of a plucky heroine, climbing up trees and falling off of horses (always getting right back on) while her larger than life father roams the globe playing make-believe with the Olympians.
"It was a Once-Upon-A-Time time," she says now, on the phone from her home of the last 20-odd years in Venice Beach, California—another castle by another sea. "It was a time that was un-fueled by television," she says, "a time in which the senses had freedom to roam and one was outside most of the time inventing things or investigating the Earth and nature. It was both a lyrical childhood but also a very grounding one in that I've always been attached to the country and looked to the country for refuge."
In her childhood, in that country refuge, wizened elders would appear at the Huston home, eyes a-twinkle as in fable, with the express mandate of teaching the young lady a life lesson. Edna O'Brien, Carson McCullers, Pauline de Rothschild, Donald Trumbo, Deborah Kerr, and Robert Mitchum make memorable cameos in her memoir. But twinkliest-eyed of them all was Peter O'Toole, who delighted the young Anjelica by arriving in costume to dinner, and attending her very first performance, a failed living room rendition of Macbeth. This was the early 1960s, around the time of Lawrence of Arabia, when he was among the biggest stars on Earth, and when O'Toole, an Irishman, lovingly described Ireland as the sow that ate it's own farrow. "God, you can love it!" he said. "But you can't live in it." Ireland made artists, O'Toole believed, artists who then had to leave the despair of Ireland to create their work. "Tell me one Irish artist that ever produced here," he said at the time, "just one!"
I ask Huston if she feels a part of this tradition. She muses for a moment and then says, "In all souls born in Ireland there's a sense of being born on an island, a bit of being an island oneself, a bit of being an anomaly in the modern world. The Irish abroad are always larger than life, they're Oscar Wilde, they're Sean O'Casey. They're apt to get too drunk, and talk too loud and embarrass themselves at parties. It is part of an extremely honest tradition of being who you are and saying what you feel. I think that tradition speaks to me. I like it."
Like O'Casey, like O'Toole, Anjelica too would soon leave Ireland, for school in London, and later for life as a model in New York, as her lyrical youth gives way to adolescence and a picaresque series of adventures and encounters. Richard Avedon, a family friend, takes her picture—at his bidding or her parents', she can't remember. She sits for David Bailey, receives a Tahitian tortoiseshell ring from Marlon Brando (along with an invitation to visit him on the island), and understudies Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia in Tony Richardson's production of Hamlet. In full-swing late 60s London, the teenaged Huston makes her first fumbles toward romance, and begins a new stage of rebellion from the life that is prescribed to her. She smokes. She cuts class. She is aware, as she has been from earliest childhood, of being more than she is allowed to be, of a spilling over of potential, and so she wrests at that which controls her — most directly, her parents.
Looking back on that time now, of coming into her own, she says, "You follow your life and you realise why you made some decisions — the terrible decisions and the ones that catapulted you ahead. In the ebb and flow of one's wants and needs within the perimeter of a life — what you desire, what you want to accomplish — those are the mainstays of a life, whether you want to be a wife and mother, whether you want to go out into the world and be an explorer. In my case, I always had a yearning to communicate. That's what made me an actress, that was a feeling I had from early on. I liked making people laugh. I wanted people to think I was pretty. It was the through line of my existence."
In an occasion of irony too momentous to be fiction, Huston is unwittingly forced, at 16, down the path she will later take of her own accord by her filmmaker father when he casts her as the lead in a movie he is making in Italy. On her way to set she travels through Paris just as the students are building their barricades on the Left Bank. But instead of joining the dreamers, Huston dutifully arrives for the disaster that is A Walk With Love and Death. (It would be a shame for me to paraphrase or these experiences any more than I already have, as Huston writes them with incredible elegance—so, to the primary source I will refer you.) As Sofia Coppola and Asia Argento probably know, there is a specific pain and frustration of a teenage girl working on a gruelling production with a demanding father, and for Huston it left a great wound on her life. A wound, that would immediately pale to the loss of her mother soon after.
About this time in her life, and throughout the book. Huston writes about great pain, about loss, about the evanescence and transience of life with lucidity and great grace. It's magical, really, the ability to convert those fiery points of memory into something vital, something productive, a smelting pot from which to draw life, a story. "In the same way it is hard as an actress to convey pain," she says now, "to tap into those feelings, it was for a me a similar experience when I went back to those places that gave me pain. But they're not worth it unless they are hard ones. You have to suffer through them. You do suffer in the retelling. And that in some way is your barometer, whether it works or not. Did it move you when you were writing this thing? Did it move you when you were reading this thing?"
I've heard her talk about the trial that was A Walk with Love and Death. I know how formative it was for her and I ask her if having to revisit that chapter in her life, among others, of having to 'go there', as actresses say, made her reassess things, if she had a new perspective. "Well," she says, speaking specifically of that fraught first production with her father, "I think I am a lot more sympathetic to him than I was at the time. At the time I think I was wholly sympathetic to myself." She laughs, playfully, and then really gleefully, and kids, "Otherwise I am still sorry for myself."
Filmmaking, for Huston, is of course sort of the family business. Her father directed both she and her grandfather to Academy Awards (making them the only family, until Sofia Coppola won Oscar, to complete that trick three generations in a row)—and her half-brother Danny and her nephew Jack both have flourishing careers. But even in autobiography she is competing with her father's output. Not that she's competing, exactly—John Huston's An Open Book famously isn't all that open. But the inheritance is clear. More than inheritance, really, as, when she was a child, young Anjelica was drilled on the art of storytelling. Every morning when her dad was in residence at the big house in Ireland, she and her brother would be summoned to his room during breakfast and put on the spot. "What news," her dad would ask, and they would be expected to entertain him. "There was an expectation in my family that you would come up with something to say," she says now, "something to merit your presence. If you're going to be there you have to contribute in some way." It was a nerve-wracking experience for the girl, a kind of performance boot camp run by an exacting sergeant. "I was at a friend's house a couple of years ago and they have a tradition of the rose and the thorn," she says. "What was your rose today and what was your thorn? I thought it was a very gentle version of what I went through."
A Story Lately Told comes to a close on a rose-y moment, just as Huston walks away from an unhappy relationship and a successful modeling career in New York to move to Los Angeles. A second installment of the memoir (Watch Me, due out fall 2014) will pick up there and cover the Hollywood years, years in which she again re-teamed with her father (on Prizzi's Honor, for which she won an Oscar, as well as on his masterful last movie, The Dead, which Anjelica's brother Tony adapted from Joyce's Dubliners), years in which she dated Jack Nicholson, married the sculptor Robert Graham, and built her gorgeous citadel by the sea. These are heroic chapters, chapters when she becomes a Hollywood goddess, but chapters still no less coloured by loss. We look forward to the second book, not for the "happily ever after," but for more of the grace with which Huston wrote this first one. We look forward to more of these great stories, lately, and masterfully told.
Text Chris Wallace
Photography Tim Jenkins