Arts: The stepmother complex

Anjelica Huston has a thing about playing witches. But can she do more than just scary? John Walsh meets a versatile vamp
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The Independent Culture
She was Top Mafia Babe in Prizzi's Honour, and Top Witch in The Witches, Nicolas Roeg's film of Roald Dahl's celebrated book, and Top Ghoul as Morticia Addams in The Addams Family; she has played Least Appealing Screen Mother in The Grifters (where she ends up killing her son, played by John Cusack, by stabbing him in the throat with a broken glass). And now she's about to burst upon us as Top Evil Stepmother in the new romantic Cinderella-with-attitude movie, Ever After, opening on Friday. If you were Anjelica Huston, you might be forgiven for wondering if you were getting a little typecast.

Except that, as Ms Huston's real fans know, she is capable of far more shades of emotion and drama than the limited palate - of black, dark black, Stygian and noir - suggested by the movies that made her name. Those who saw her in John Huston's heartbreaking version of Joyce's The Dead, or playing Martin Landau's doomed screen mistress in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, know how convincingly moving she can be when that majestic body of hers, that spectacular face, are allowed to behave as if attached to a human being rather than a two-dimensional grotesque.

There's a general feeling in film critic circles that Hollywood has rather seriously under-used the striking Ms Huston, as if the Louvre Museum had been utilising the Winged Victory of Samothrace to keep the back door wedged open. Now that Ms Huston is back, in three new movies and after a few years out of the limelight, it's time to ask her what, at 46, she makes of her own talents.

She strides into the Dorchester suite, six-feet-nothing of tough businesswoman, handsome, sleek and a little wary, her Dolce e Gabbana tweed two-piece like a carapace against impertinent interviewers. Ms Huston's enormous head is curtained by her dark-chestnut hair, and her vast hazel eyes blaze beneath their tarantulan lashes. She smokes Marlboro Lights like an enthusiastic laboratory beagle. Her long femme fatale legs end in spiked heels. It's a fantastic package, if an unsettling one: Anjelica Huston, half corporate raider, half professional assassin.

I asked about the Huston dynasty (her father John was the director, actor and screenwriter, his father Walter, the actor who won an Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Did she feel it in the blood? "You call us a dynasty? A few years ago, I was in a Japanese theatre and when a certain actor went on stage, the whole audience, and I mean to the rafters, called out `Welcome 28th dynasty Genko!', because this guy's ancestors had all played his role for centuries. That's a dynasty. The Hustons, in terms of America's short history, are a mini-dynasty. But it's nice to be working in the same media for that long. Genes? No, it's more like somebody who's grown up in a shoemaking family. I think it's kind of what you know more than what you don't."

Some publicist on Ever After suggested that the reason Ms Huston had been attracted back to movies was because her co-star, Drew Barrymore, told her they should both pay homage to their distinguished ancestors. The reasons were actually much simpler ("It was fun, it was a nice part, it was a fairy tale, it was a lovely summer, it was the Dordogne, it was very good food, it was an easy job compared to some I've had that are more twisted and soul-searching, it was well paid and nicely rounded-out, it was a big studio. Shall I go on?") but I doubt if their ancestors would be all that impressed. Ever After is a sweet film with a leaden script, some gorgeous photography but prosaic direction, pitched (I'd guess) at bovine American teenagers. It nods at post-feminism (Ms Barrymore, as the Cinders figure, holds Prince Charming Dougray Scott entranced by quoting from More's Utopia, which, her father assures her, "means paradise" (though, of course, in Greek it means "nowhere"), and drags in Leonardo Da Vinci as an avuncular Merlin-figure. Its main raison d'etre is to give dumpy teenage girls hope of finding romance, and its finest moments are those when Anjelica is on screen. She plays Rodmilla, the stepmother, with exquisite, cooing relish, murmurously scheming to marry off her two minxy, non-Utopia-reading daughters, arching her phenomenal eyebrows like a McDonald's logo above a face of frightening angularity, her hair tucked into a Medea- like headdress, her body languorously lain on a bed, a sturdy odalisque dreaming of Christmas in Paris.

I said I thought the evil-stepmother thing was softened down from time- to-time in the modern Hollywood fashion where nobody can be wholly nasty and even Lady Macbeth would be given a "special moment" to describe how she really liked kids. Ms Huston didn't buy it. "There's something about playing an evil role, that, unless your character is generically warped or Hitler-ian, an actor can always ask - what are the underpinnings of the person's life and why are they so dreadful? I think it's a more realistic rendering than the caricature of a woman who mindlessly beats a girl." But surely, I said, that's what a Wicked Stepmother is for. "No," said Ms Huston firmly, "I have many sympathies with the woman. She comes to this marriage with two lovely daughters of marriageable age, the second husband brings her to a farmhouse instead of the glorious palace she was expecting, then dies leaving her with all kinds of monetary problems, and this girl is in the way, with whom she's never had any connection and whom she considers a serious rival to her daughters in the Prince's affection. She's terribly disappointed and thwarted and hasn't made the marriage she wanted, and consequently had invested everything in her daughters..."

Well, gosh. In Anjelica Huston's torrential analysis, the villain of a simple Cinderella tale turns into Jane Austen's Mrs Bennett. She is a formidable talker when in full flow, interspersing real insights with slightly grating cultural-studies jargon. ("I don't think Lady Macbeth sets out to be evil, she has a very serious agenda for her husband and she empowers him to go for things.") Didn't she like playing as black as possible when she got such a role? "I like playing all kinds of stuff, but the shadings are what interest me. The satisfaction lies in pulling off the transitions between moods. To be very black and white, very Kabuki, is one way - but I've done those witches. This is something else".

Ms Huston isn't keen to sit around becoming typecast. Apart from Ever After, she's also currently appearing in Buffalo 66 by the egregiously- talented Vincent Gallo, playing Gallo's mother. And also lurking on the must-see movie shelf is The Mammy, which Ms Huston filmed in Dublin earlier this year. It was her second shot at directing, and is the result of her enthusiasm for the work of Brendan O'Carroll, the Irish author. "Jim Sheridan told me about it. The script is tremendously engaging. It has great curves. Brendan does this rare thing of combining street comedy with very poignant stuff, the rollercoaster between comedy and tragedy happens a lot and it's really intriguing to play." She takes the lead, playing a woman whose husband dies suddenly (like Rodmilla's), leaving her with seven children, a new romance and an obsession with the singer Tom Jones, who has a strut- on part in the movie.

For purposes of research, she hung out in the fruit 'n' veg market in the roughest part of Dublin, listening to the thick accents of the women traders. "The only way you can do that voice," she says, "is to go to Moore Street and work at it. At some point you have to jump in, and that's always a bit terrifying. It's like skiing, you have to fall on your face sometimes, so you might as well do it big time." Upon which she launched into a spectacular Dublin accent ("Par-snups! Toirnups!") which had me in hysterics.

It was a kind of homecoming for the divine Ms Huston, who spent the first 12 years of her life in Co Galway. "I wanted to believe in God, but my parents were both atheists. We had tutors until I was nine or 10, then I went to the Sisters of Mercy convent in Loughrea. I wasn't indoctrinated, but you can't really go to a convent in Ireland and not come out a Catholic. I've never shaken it off. I'd say I still have Catholic leanings."

Looking at this statuesque leading lady, the antithesis of every interchangeable Hollywood bimbo, it's hard to imagine her as a little girl - as the princess before she turned into the queen. "I hated the way I looked when I was young," she says with some heat. "I've always veered between thinking on occasion I was good-looking and on occasion not. I think it's pretty close to the truth - I can be good-looking from some angles, and not from others." Weren't you tall and sweeping and stately when young? "But one isn't tall and stately as a teenager. One is oversized and gangling and awkward, and embarrassed about being bigger or taller than everybody else. And then you go through the stage of putting heels on, because if you're taller than the others, you might as well be twice as tall." Thus, it seems, are movie heroines born.