‘Witches are the most honest expression of female anger’ – as she returns to screens in Transparent, Hollywood’s queen of subversion tells us how film has fuelled her feminism
Taken from the winter 2015 issue of Dazed:
Anjelica Huston could give lessons in the art of name-dropping. Rule number one: make sure the names are worth dropping. The characters that populate Huston’s stories certainly are.
“Dick Avedon, Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis,” she begins, recalling friends from the impossibly starry production that was disco-era New York. “Gerard Malanga, Viva, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, Perry Ellis and Ara Gallant, Joe McDonald... I could go on and on,” she adds, the constellation of names descending like the glitter that once fell on dancefloor revellers at Studio 54.
Tucked up on a cream sofa at her home in Los Angeles’ luxurious Pacific Palisades neighbourhood, Huston is a long way from the Technicolor party days of her past life. Statuesque and athletic at the age of 64, the actress is dressed in a chic blue cashmere sweater and cigarette pants, the blood-red talons she brandished as Morticia Addams in 1991’s The Addams Family now neatly manicured in glossy, ballet-slipper pink. Her long hair gleams like the various pieces of expensive wood in the room where we sit, accompanied by her beloved dogs, Mercedes (Mecha for short) and Luna (AKA Pootie-Pie Girly Girl).
In person, Huston has none of the arch froideur that defines her most iconic roles. Our current mise-en-scene features objects you might find in the home of a particularly tasteful great-aunt – purple orchids, crystal paperweights, excellent art books – as well as some you probably wouldn’t. Outside, a navy blue Bentley is parked in the driveway. Inside, sculptures by her late husband Robert Graham decorate every surface, while paintings by John William Godward and Tiepolo drawings line the walls. “This one was a gift from my then-boyfriend Jack Nicholson,” she proffers, rising to adjust a gold-framed portrait that hangs slightly askew above a mahogany writer’s bureau. “I think he thought that I looked like the woman in in it.”
It’s a cloudy Friday afternoon, and Huston is at home in between shoot days for her new role in the Amazon original series Transparent, Jill Soloway’s Emmy award-winning depiction of an LA family coming to terms with its transgender father. With only two episodes in the can, Huston won’t say much about her part, but concedes that “the experience has made my heart beat a little quicker. I just think it’s such a great show, and so timely. It’s funny how all these disparate elements came together – the year of Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura (in Transparent) and, of course, Caitlyn Jenner.”
With its zeitgeisty subject matter, Transparent seems a natural choice of role for an actress with an uncanny ability to morph with the changing times. “I’m like the Zelig,” she admits, referencing Woody Allen’s chameleonic fictional character who seamlessly mimics the strong characters he encounters. “All my life, I managed to be at the right place at the right time.”
For while Huston is able to recognise Transparent’s groundbreaking importance – “the work these actors are putting in is very naked, very challenging” – she has always moved in the kind of progressive social circles where gender and sexuality long ceased to be a point of interest, much less division. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been around gay people, young people, old people, small people or large people, fat people, thin people,” she shrugs. “I’ve had amazing friends in my life and I’ve never cared which gender they were. As far as I’m concerned, they could be Santa Claus.”
“In some ways, witches are the most honest expression of female anger. Most of the time we’re trying to keep everything aloft with our smiles and our prettiness and our effort, but witches are letting it all hang out” – Anjelica Huston
The daughter of legendary Hollywood director John Huston and ballerina Enrica Soma, Anjelica Huston was born in Santa Monica, California in 1951, but grew up mostly on a 110-acre estate named St Clerans in County Galway, Ireland. It was an isolated upbringing punctuated by visits from her father’s famous friends; a place where Peter O’Toole would drop in to watch a young Anjelica reenact scenes from Macbeth, or John Steinbeck might don a cotton-wool beard at Christmas to play the role of Santa Claus himself.
In A Story Lately Told, the first of her two incredibly juicy memoirs, Huston describes St Clerans in evocative detail, painting a picture of impossible opulence and refinement. “Greek marbles, Venetian glass, dancing Indian Shivas, Japanese screens and woodblocks, retablos, Chinese gongs, Italian carvings, bronzes, guns, ancient weaponry, Imperial jade, Etruscan gold, French tapestries, Louis XIV furniture,” she recounts of the many treasures that adorn her childhood memories, most of which made their way to St Clerans via her father’s extensive spells away on set.
“My childhood was uncluttered with people, so the people who came stood out against the background,” she explains of her remarkable recall for the minutiae of her early years. “It was never an overcrowded field of vision, so I had a lot of time to observe things from a certain distance.”
If the scenes from Huston’s early life featured only occasional cameos from visitors (albeit pretty stellar ones), her late teens and 20s would require a never-ending list of credits. After the gradual dissolution of her parents’ marriage, Huston moved with her mother to swinging London – a time tinged with the scent of “Vetiver, Brut, and Old Spice for the boys; lavender, sandalwood, and Fracas for the girls; unwashed hair, cigarettes,” according to her memoirs – before migrating to New York following her mother’s death in a tragic car accident, when Huston was just 17.
Grief-stricken and “very vulnerable”, she sought solace in a tumultuous relationship with the photographer Bob Richardson (father of Terry) and under the wing of various parental figures. Having played a formidable part in her early childhood, her own father temporarily disappeared from the picture around this time. “We lost track of each other for a few years after my mum died, because he didn’t like the idea that I was seeing a 42-year-old ex-drug addict. I mean, what father would?”
As she grew into her singular beauty, Huston began to walk in Halston shows and model for the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. “Modelling was a very powerful thing for me and I had some wonderful teachers,” she says of life whirling between the dancefloors and runways of New York and Europe. “There was Anna Piaggi and Alfa Castaldi in Italy, Serge Lutens in Paris, David Bailey in London. I got to work with some really extraordinary people, all of whom had a great sense of vision. I was able to sponge it all up and learn so much.”
“Quite honestly if I had my druthers, I’d look like Mia Farrow or Jean Shrimpton, but it’s not the way I was put together” – Anjelica Huston
The most influential of all her famous mentors was the photographer Richard Avedon, a longtime friend of her parents, who told her, at the age of 15, that her shoulders were too broad to ever be a model, only to change his mind by the time she blossomed into her early 20s. “It was largely due to Dick Avedon, in all honesty – the way he saw me, the way he interpreted me, the way he registered and appreciated me – that I was able to crystallise the direction in which I wanted to go.”
Drained by the drawn-out end to her torrid affair with Richardson, Huston eventually migrated to Los Angeles, where she slipped seamlessly into a world of society stars and Hollywood A-listers. There, she and actor Jack Nicholson met, fell in love, and commenced a 17-year, on-again, off-again relationship as the most charismatic couple of the era (all documented in delicious detail in her second memoir, Watch Me, which manages to be even more celebrity-studded than the first).
Having made a few unsuccessful forays into acting in her younger years – a part in her father’s 1969 film A Walk With Love and Death yielded “some breathtakingly negative reviews” – Huston’s late 20s saw her resume work as an actress in her own right. Scarred by her early experiences, and understandably intimidated by having Hollywood royalty for both a boyfriend and a dad, Huston spent several years diligently studying her craft at Peggy Feury’s Loft Studio – alma mater to Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, among a lexicon of stars – before making a slow but steady return to the big screen. She has worked consistently ever since.
Having long since proved her chops, Huston now has an Academy Award to her name (for her role in 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor) and more than 70 television and film roles under her belt, including cult appearances in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. But for a whole generation of 90s kids – myself included – she will forever be synonymous with her chillingly perfect depiction of Morticia Addams, the glacial but tender matriarch of The Addams Family.
“There’s a certain kind of subversive humour that appeals to me,” she says of the roles she is most drawn to. “I love contradictions in terms. With Morticia, we know that she’s a ghoul, that she cuts the heads off roses, that she has that wraith-like look. But what we really love about her is the way she loves her husband and children. Whether they’re outside playing at killing each other with bows and arrows, or rolling boulders down the highway, she takes this sweet, indulgent pride in how smart and wonderful they are.”
In her most recent memoir, Watch Me, Huston confesses to having “never felt that the camera automatically loved me, but in a way this forced me to develop my career as a character actress, which has enabled me to do the work that gives me the most pleasure.” She is self-effacing about her striking looks – “Quite honestly if I had my druthers, I’d look like Mia Farrow or Jean Shrimpton, but it’s not the way I was put together” – and steadfastly self-aware: she can regale me with her fabulous stories while retaining a keen empathy for the struggles of the everywoman’s life.
“In my spell of playing witches (she also played the Grand High Witch in the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, The Witches) it occurred to me that witches are witches because they’re in agony, they’re in hell. Their feet hurt, their backs hurt, they’re hairy! They don’t have tweezers, you know? So they’re furious and they’re taking it out on life,” she laughs. “In some ways, witches are the most honest expression of female anger. Most of the time we’re trying to keep everything aloft with our smiles and our prettiness and our effort, but witches are letting it all hang out.”
“I respect girls like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence – I look at what they do and I think: bravo. I’m glad these girls have a platform” – Anjelica Huston
I say that she is seen as a real woman’s woman, and she says she’s glad to hear it. “I really have a lot of sympathy with women. We’ve had a hard struggle and continue to have a hard struggle. You know, 20 years ago, I was given the Women in Film Crystal Award (established in 1977 to honour those who have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry), and there was this whole excitement for change. But in all honesty,” she sighs, “there have been no advances since then, except perhaps that there’s more happening on television for female directors. Movies are still a man’s business.”
Still, she’s hopeful about the ability of a new generation of media-savvy stars to redirect the spotlight and redress the balance. “I respect girls like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence – I look at what they do and I think: bravo. I’m glad these girls have a platform – a bigger platform than some of the other women in their profession – because they are very young women at the peak of their prime. For women my age, things are a little bit different. It’s perhaps not so entertaining to listen to any kind of middle-aged grumblings about parts.”
When it comes to mounting her own platform, Huston prefers “to advocate for things that can’t advocate for themselves, like poor old whales”. She’s a longtime spokesperson for Peta, and is passionate on the subject of climate change: despite her immutable association with all things spooky and supernatural, she’s much more concerned about the state of this planet than she is excited about the possibility of life on others.
As a schoolgirl in London in the 60s, Huston recalls asking visiting Nasa scientists “why we were sending people into space when we couldn’t feed the world”. It’s a question that has troubled her ever since. “I don’t know why I’m so guarded about space exploration,” she says today. “I suppose I feel like we’ve clogged up the earth with so much trash, and now it seems we’ve got to trash space. I just don’t think it’s really going to yield that much.”
For now, she’s busy with her work, her animals, her extended family – she has never had children of her own, but is an aunt many times over – and of course, the countless dazzling friends who still occupy her social life. “But, you know, if they do happen to find a disco planet...” she laughs. “Well, hitch me a ride!”
Transparent season two begins December 11 on Amazon
Hair Alex Polillo at Foward Artists usting Bumble and bumble, make-up Jamie Greenberg at The Wall Group, nails Nettie Davis, photographic assistant Jordan Haggard, fashion assistants Iona Ivan, Virginia Fontaine, Jazzy Ross, hair assistant Dritan Vushaj, production Rosco
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