CINEMA / Is there life after Morticia?: Anjelica Huston is Hollywood's nearly woman. Now 42, with some great performances behind her, she deserves better. David Thomson reports

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The Independent Culture
ANJELICA HUSTON could play Morticia Addams with one arm tied behind her back, or with that acid Mona Lisa smile tucked underneath her arm. If it came to it, and if the special-effects people were deft enough, she and Raul Julia's Gomez could play ping-pong with their heads, relishing every wickedly sliced backhand, and exchanging malicious one- liners as their heads passed at the net.

They may have to be ready. The Addams Family is one of those institutions Hollywood will be reluctant to lose, even if Addams Family Values did 'only' make dollars 14.1m ( pounds 9.7m) at the American box office in its first weekend, a full dollars 10m less than the surprise sensation of The Addams Family two years ago. When the first movie opened - after studio problems and much budgetary excess - no one was unduly optimistic. The original Charles Addams cartoons from the New Yorker were never mainstream material. Even the TV series (with Carolyn Jones as Morticia) ran only two seasons in the 1960s. So who wanted another movie on the subject?

It turned out that millions of kids who were more or less resigned to living in untidy, disputatious and occasionally dysfunctional families (estimates put the number at 97.777 per cent of the whole - kids are such cynics) were delighted by this world of the living dead, where everyone voiced their nastiest, dirtiest under-thoughts, and usually in wisecracks. The Addams Family was a smash; it earned more than dollars 55m at American theatres alone. So Paramount was anxious to stage a family reunion and, reportedly, it paid everyone a lot more than they had earned on the original. I'd guess that Anjelica Huston only did it for dollars 2m - heaved a sigh, and squeezed herself into the black dress again.

The sequel is funnier than the original; it's a better movie, thanks to the Paul Rudnick script. It has also had the wit to bring in some fresh blood. Chez Addams can get a little claustrophobic on family riffs, so there's a nanny in this one to help look after Morticia's baby. And the nanny (played by Joan Cusack) goes after Fester. That misbegotten affair is the best thing in the picture, which means there's that much less of Morticia. Reason enough to make Anjelica Huston sigh once more, and wonder why she did the picture - and whether there's going to be a number three in the series to agonise over.

I'm putting it this way because there are some of us who reckon that Anjelica Huston is one of the last properties the American picture business should waste or treat lightly. But the facts are that in the last year, apart from doing Morticia again, she took a small role in the TV movie of the Randy Shilts book about Aids, And the Band Played On, and she was a supporting figure in the latest Woody Allen film, Manhattan Murder Mystery.

It's worth dwelling on that picture, which comes out here on 21 January, for a moment, not least because you might let it slip by. The disaster of Woody's public relations in the last couple of years has done a lot to separate him from his loyal following. But this is one of his better small entertainments: it actually has a story that works, and so stunning a comedic performance from Diane Keaton you wish all the more that Woody would shut up, stop interrupting Keaton, and cast an actor in his role. And there, also, is Anjelica Huston, doing . . . very little.

Watching the film, I tried to imagine what her part had looked like in the script. The novelist she plays does propel the enquiry into the mystery at one point, and Ms Huston gives her loads of attitude, looks and black-leather panache. But the woman has no life to go with such arresting lines as, 'I wouldn't say I'm beautiful, but I do have tremendous sex appeal', which you have to wonder whether Allen added when he heard that Huston would play the part. Which is hardly enough reason to do the part in a year when Anjelica Huston had her 42nd birthday.

Except that, what else are you going to do? At the 1991 San Francisco Film Festival, Anjelica Huston received a tribute of the kind aimed at younger performers - in other words, not so much a life achievement plaque as a bottle of champagne on a journey half complete. The tribute emphasised four astonishing performances, the meat of her work, and the reason for believing in her promise: Mae Rose in her

father's Prizzi's Honor - sad, sly and a genius at family business; the mistress who has become a problem, a body that needs to be disposed of, in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors; the wife back from the dead in Enemies: A Love Story - limping but philosophical, the breath of tolerance; and the con-artist mother in Stephen Frears's The Grifters, so driven to the wall of necessity that she kills her own son. Many might add to that list her role in The Dead, her father's final film, but I thought the performance conventional and the movie a pale version of James Joyce's story. Don't let's argue about it - here were four or five wonderful performances, showing range, strength and an interest in human vagary that was probably better suited to supporting parts than star roles.

And she was 40. At the San Francisco tribute, that fact was politely pointed out, if only in terms of Hollywood's aversion to women past a certain age. It is a tested principle of the picture business that every year there are new sensational young women. (And every year they seem younger, which only the cruel attribute to the fact that guys are growing older.) And just as Hollywood men like to marry women younger than themselves (if only on medical advice), so moviegoers adore the new faces and slender bodies that the kids bring in. Forty is a dangerous age, as witness the increasing tenuousness of the careers of Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner, Sally Field, Susan Sarandon, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton, whose virtuoso work in Manhattan Murder Mystery went little noticed.

Actresses in their forties do get work, but it's often in routine consort roles (Sally Field with Robin Williams in the new Mrs Doubtfire), or by stretching themselves (Meryl Streep's grating and disastrous descent into comedy), seldom through a great part (Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise). There are careers in that list that won't be current in 10 years' time. You can think of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn carrying on until they were old ladies, but Davis and Hepburn in their forties were lucky enough to get All About Eve, Adam's Rib, The African Queen and Summer Madness, and still they had bad patches. These days, it's harder to find such 'mature' projects, and it's no surprise or shame if Anjelica Huston cashes in on Morticia Addams.

The real wonder now is that she did so little with her youth when she had it. She was the child of John Huston and his fourth wife, Ricki Soma - a dancer, a model, and a would-be actress. A lot of her childhood was spent in Ireland (at Huston's grand manor, St Clerans, in Galway) and in London. On the face of it, she had so many

advantages. There were always creative people coming and going - but that meant that she was seldom sure when she'd see her father. When she was only a teenager, John gave her the lead in one of his films, A Walk with Love and Death, set in 14th-century France. The film was a flop, and Anjelica was no more than appealing. She and her father then were closest in combat. There was even some reason for thinking that Huston had cast her as a warning, or a lesson. He was an inspiring man, magical in many ways, but with a tough streak. Being anyone's father, or being depended on, were not the chief objects of his life.

As Anjelica grew older, she found another 'perfect' patron, who presented difficulties, too: her long-time lover, Jack Nicholson. She was with him, on and off, through most of the 1970s and early 1980s: he got her the exotic role of the animal-trainer in The Postman Always Rings Twice (and that got her a nude scene with Jack). But Jack was very famous, and she was not; and Jack was a womaniser who felt liberated by fame, just as John Huston had been sexually nomadic. And not even two big men could get Anjelica's career off the ground. Take a look now at the movie of The Last Tycoon, made in 1976, with De Niro as the Irving Thalberg figure. Harold Pinter wrote the script. Elia Kazan directed and Sam Spiegel produced. It was supposed to be a very important picture. Ingrid Boulting was the female lead.

Ingrid Boulting is not the only reason why the film is a dud, but she's one of the reasons. There's a scene early on when De Niro has to track down one of the two women he saw the night before. There's a misunderstanding, he gets the 'wrong' one first. The wrong one was played by Anjelica Huston, and she had a single scene, at night, in a car. It's so electric and touching that, as De Niro corrects himself and pursues Ms Boulting, any audience now would stamp their feet and roar: 'Don't do it, buddy, stay with this one.' But as a beautiful young thing, that's what kept happening to Anjelica Huston. No one seemed to notice, and if they did, they said, Jack's girl, or John's kid, and that was explanation enough. I suspect she lacked the confidence that everyone took for granted in someone so tall and commanding who had Jack and John in her pedigree.

A few years ago, Peter Hall invited Anjelica Huston to play Serafina in a revival of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo in London. She declined, maybe in awe of Anna Magnani - Williams had written the part for her; but maybe because she has not done much theatre anywhere. Yet the theatre is made for her: she has a rich voice, with traces of Ireland in it still, as well as something of Italy; she moves well; she has a face that can be seen and felt from afar; and she has a sense of reality. I say that because Morticia Addams no longer really looks like Huston. Morticia is a

make-up mask, such as Huston practised with in Nicolas Roeg's excellent The Witches (1990).

Anjelica Huston looks like the woman in her Woody Allen films - tall, not quite heavy, but large-framed, and with a face trained on fresh air and being what you are. She has the face and the body that might inspire Lucian Freud - far more character than glamour. She showed that look beneath a gingery-blonde wig in The Grifters, a movie so chilling that it scared off the large audience happy to be goosed by Morticia. It isn't easy knowing when or how to take risks if you're an actress, no matter that Huston is now a Hollywood figure, with an Oscar for Prizzi's Honor, her father dead and Jack moved on, and that she is happily married to the Los Angeles artist, Robert Graham.

She was going to play the woman in the film of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, a project to be made in Europe because Roman Polanski is directing it. That has since fallen through because of scheduling problems, but it could have had difficult moments because it was Anjelica's testimony about what had happened in Jack Nicholson's house one day in 1978 that led to Polanski being charged with the rape of a minor. The case is not clear, but the police allegedly found cocaine in her bag and a deal was done for testimony. That was another time and place, with Nicholson and Polanski only a few years out of Chinatown, and with Anjelica Huston as an appendage.

For years, she has wanted to play Maria Callas. She has had singing lessons, though obviously any movie would use Callas's voice. But to act the part of a singer, you have to know what it feels like, how one breathes, how one's face is changed or pressurised. There is a plan for a biopic, based on the book by Arianna Stassinopoulos, and with Franco Zeffirelli directing. But big dream projects like that can grow very expensive, and there will be voices that ask how many people want to see a movie about a dead opera singer.

Time will tell, but I'd rather see a few long-shots like Callas than Morticia III and IV. That Addams house has the uneasy feel of a place that might have to take in Macaulay Culkin as a house guest. Maybe Anjelica Huston needs to break cover, act older than she really is, and seek out large, adventurous roles. Maybe her father warned her about actresses at fortysomething. When John Huston was 42, he'd just made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and he had 40 more years to fill. Three years later he made The African Queen and had this daughter. Now she needs a director with wild ideas, like her father.

'Addams Family Values' (PG) opens at cinemas across the country on Friday 10 December.

(Photograph omitted)