By and large, I don’t really give a single flying fuck about famous acting families. A lot of them, I think the world would be happier without. The Baldwins are a good example of that thought.
However, there are at least a couple of acting families that I can’t help but be fascinated by. The Carradines are one, and the Hustons would have to be another. The Huston family includes the great Walter Huston (who won an acting Oscar in his son John’s film Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and the iconic, complex writer/director/actor John Huston. Beyond his own career, John had at least two children who went on to great careers in their own right. You can see his son Danny Huston in such films as Wonder Woman. In recent years, he has become one of the best character actors in the business.
Then you have John’s daughter Anjelica Huston. Of the entire family, particularly in terms of acting, it’s hard to argue with the notion that anyone has reached the heights Anjelica has reached. Over the course of a career that started over fifty years ago, transitioning from a successful life as a model to TV and film, she has become one of the most consistently reliable on-screen performers in recent history. Her body of work is a lot more impressive, when you start to go back through the decades. Anjelica Huston is one of those people who is so consistently good at so many different characters, we sometimes just kind of forget about her. Or worse, we stop talking about her after The Addams Family and Wes Anderson movies.
To be sure, those are all great performances. However, as is often the case with people who are reliable, and are seemingly up for just about anything gig-wise, a lot of great work winds up getting lost in the shuffle. I thought about this, when I realized we haven’t covered Anjelica Huston at Make The Case. As I started to go through her film and television work, I also realized that she might just be one of the best living examples of those people I’m talking about. Even in the worst movies and TV shows, Huston herself is rarely disappointing.
Thankfully, we don’t have to delve into the garbage too much. When it comes to the best Anjelica Huston movies, there are more than a few films in the “good-to-great” category. Yet again, five movies really isn’t enough for someone as memorable and versatile as she has proven herself to be.
1. Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
Between her first film in 1969 (A Walk With Love and Death) and this entry from 1985, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Anjelica Huston had only appeared in 7 other films. The resume up to this point already included her father John Huston, Elia Kazan (his final film), and Rob Reiner (remember her in This Is Spinal Tap?). She got into acting slowly, but built up an impressive body of work, by the time she signed on to do another movie her dad. Considering how well she plays the ex-girlfriend of Jack Nicholson’s dim-but-sweet mob hitman, I would argue pretty strongly against the idea that nepotism contributed to Huston making her mark early as an actress.
Her screen time in this is short, but her intelligence and fierce individuality provide the movie with something to balance out the main story between Nicholson and Kathleen Turner’s hitwoman. She steals every scene she’s in, and she earns the Oscar she would later win for this. The fact that John Huston directed this should almost be treated as a coincidence. This isn’t Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia in Godfather III (she’s a better director). Huston knew his daughter could do just about anything as an actress.
2. The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl hated this adaptation of one of his classic children’s books, but who cares what he thinks. Plus, he’s extremely dead.
Dahl’s opinions (he died the year the movie was released) not withstanding, The Witches is one of the most enjoyable Dahl adaptations of all time. Some of that comes from the great English director Nicholas Roeg, who also directed stuff like The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s best films have a curious knack for grounding the fantastic in a time and place that feels real enough, but also carries an element of the unfamiliar. The Witches, which feels like a cartoon come to life at times, is a prime example of the tone Roeg could establish for offbeat projects.
However, the biggest part of this film’s appeal is from Anjelica Huston as Miss Ernst, who also happens to be the Grand High Witch. This is one of the first times Huston appeared in something that called for over-the-top comedy that nonetheless didn’t go too far in that direction. Miss Ernst is an elaborate villain, but Huston doesn’t just play the character as an exaggerated series of laughing points. Adding a touch of Vincent Price to the casual grandeur of her evil, Anjelica Huston became one of my favorite performers, after I saw this movie as a little kid. Addams Family would come out shortly after this, which cemented the appeal for me.
3. The Grifters (1990)
The same year she did The Witches, Huston worked with Stephen Frears on one of the most supremely fucked up noir thrillers of all time. The Grifters is a family story in the same delightful sense that Titus Andronicus is a family story. Huston plays a hustler and mother to a very John Cusack’s aspiring con artist. Annette Benning is in there somewhere, as Cusack’s girlfriend. Benning’s character is a ferociously engaging counterpoint to the embittered cunningness of Huston’s veteran grifter. Huston’s scenes with Cusack create tension with astonishing ease. A specific scene between Huston and the late, great Pat Hingle is going to guarantee that you will never, ever look at oranges the same way again.
And the ending? It’s a high mark for everyone involved, but I promise you that you’re going to be talking about what happens with Huston more than anything else.
4. Buffalo ’66 (1998)
Holy shit, Gabriel, did you actually just skip over both Addams Family movies? And Enemies: A Love Story? And The Crossing Guard?
I did, and it’s not easy to have a list of the best Anjelica Huston movies, and not include either Addams Family. However, as iconic and flawless as her performances were in both the 1991 film and its 1993 sequel, I want to use this column to highlight a few of her lesser-appreciated performances. Buffalo ’66 works beautifully to that end. I’m also committed this month to the idea that this column should really try to give you a varied overview when it comes to appreciating what they’ve done during their careers.
With Huston as the mother to Vincent Gallo’s awkward, ugly Billy Brown, Gallo himself has a pretty long-standing reputation for being a hacky piece of shit, and this movie is watchable in spite of his performance and direction—certainly not because. So I don’t want you to really focus on Gallo too much. He’s the star of the film, so it might be difficult, but I think you can ignore him in favor of the movie’s sustained, oddly wistful atmosphere. Ghosts shuffle around the dinner table, when Billy drops in on his parents (Huston and the phenomenal, late Ben Gazzara), and they are impossible to ignore. Watching Huston’s hideous mother character speak and move in the comfort of her own, clearly aware of the spirits that will eventually claim what’s left of her sanity, gives us one of Huston’s best performances of all time.
Also, and this was apparently the case with much of the cast and crew, Gallo didn’t get along with Huston. It certainly seems to come through in their screen time together.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
While this tour stops in 2001, keep in mind that Anjelica Huston continues to impress in various film and television. We’re wrapping things up with The Royal Tenenbaums because not only is it the best Anjelica Huston performance in a Wes Anderson movie, but it’s one of the most winning characters Huston has ever played. The first of several collaborations between herself and Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums puts Huston as the matriarch of a family of burnt-out geniuses and prodigies. Huston isn’t just a plot point for her children to bounce from. Etheline Tenenbaum is fully fleshed-out character, and Huston makes her immensely likable, and even relatable. She creates a perfect half of the eccentric parents (with Gene Hackman as the disgraced father) that had a plethora of odd, brilliant kids.
At the end of the day, Etheline just wants her children to be happy. Huston doesn’t make Etheline perfect, but she makes it clear to the audience that she means well, and that this is more often than not enough. The times when it isn’t do not come from any noticeable weaknesses on her part. My only complaint about Anjelica Huston here is that we didn’t get to spend more time with her characters. I’m not really interested in Wes ever making a sequel to one of his movies, but I wouldn’t mind seeing how the Tenenbaums are doing after all these years. Most of all, I’m curious about Etheline. You have to imagine her marriage to Henry Sherman is still going strong.
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