The Classics Shelf: Anjelica Huston

That Shelf surveys the career of one of cinema's most original and unforgettable talents.

The pleasure of acting is to lead other lives different than your own, and the richer your own life, the more experiences you can represent in your work.  That’s certainly the case with the magnificent Anjelica Huston, whose name is rarely mentioned when shoring up the actors we consider the most versatile, but whose resume covers a great deal of experience: the low-life con artist of The Grifters, the baroque elegance of Morticia Addams, the subversive presence of New York City mob heiress Maerose Prizzi, and so many more. With her striking looks, it’s impossible not to know you’re watching Anjelica Huston: no one on screen has looked like her since the silent days, yet she manages to convince you that her unusual beauty and powerful physicality are organic to the world she inhabits.

The life from which Huston’s talents spring is one so rich with incident that it required two books to describe it. She published two autobiographies, beginning in 2013 with A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York and Watch Me: A Memoir the following year, both of which are highly recommended. (I’ve listened to the audio versions of each three times.)

Born the daughter of Oscar-winning director John Huston and his fourth wife, Italian-American prima ballerina Enrica Soma, she was raised in an Irish castle where her father stowed his family as he trotted the globe making films (the news of her birth was delivered by telegram to John on location in Uganda, where he was shooting The African Queen). Her grandfather, Toronto-born Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston, had died the year before and she learned about him through a print of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that her dad kept at home (years later she would sing Walter’s signature “September Song” on an episode of Smash).

Huston’s childhood was spent riding horses in the Irish countryside before adulthood came to claim her and did not tread lightly. When she was eighteen, her mother died in a car accident and, interested in acting, she pursued the lead in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet but was thwarted by her father, who insisted she star instead in his medieval romance A Walk With Love And Death. Olivia Hussey got the part in Zeffirelli’s runaway, eternal (and recently controversial) hit, while Huston was critically raked across the coals for one of John’s least acclaimed films. To watch it now, knowing what she would accomplish many years later, her performance in the film isn’t a bad one, but it’s clear that she had yet to take command of her presence on camera. The same year, she appeared briefly in Tony Richardson’s film version of Hamlet, based on the Roundhouse Theatre’s production in which she worked as Marianne Faithfull’s understudy. Her appearance in movies for the decade to follow would be few and went mostly unnoticed, while her modeling career would flourish in part thanks to her relationship with photographer Bob Richardson, with whom she lived for four years beginning when she was seventeen and he was forty-one.

A thorny connection with a loving but distant father resulted in a number of difficult relationships for Huston. Richardson, who would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia, was abusive, as was Ryan O’Neal during their brief time together, while her most famous relationship, with Jack Nicholson for almost twenty years, was one in which she was never the sole focus of his attention. It ended officially in 1990 when she learned that Nicholson fathered a child with another woman, but despite her detailing all the ups and downs of her time with him in the most honest terms, Huston’s writing doesn’t betray any regret or bitterness about the one and only Jack and she has maintained a friendly feeling for him since (at least publicly). Soon after their breakup, Huston met sculptor Robert Graham, a man she insists was the first to not make her feel jealous despite his spending most of his days locked away in a studio with nude models. Their relationship lasted until his death in 2008 at the age of 70, and her reading out the tributes made to him around the world at the time of his death in her audiobook, in which she breaks down crying, might be her memoir’s most moving moment.

Being known mainly as the daughter of one famous man and the girlfriend of another, however, was why she was reluctant to take on the role that would end up jump-starting her career at what Hollywood could easily consider a late stage in life. At the age of 34, she played Nicholson’s jilted girlfriend in her father’s late-life masterpiece Prizzi’s Honor and suddenly found herself an acclaimed, Oscar-winning actress with the world at her feet (the whole world except Oprah Winfrey, who was nominated the same year for The Color Purple and never had her as a guest on her show).  With her win, the Hustons became the first three-generational family to all be Oscar winners (matched by the Coppolas in 2004). The years to follow would be the prime era of Huston’s film career, with further Oscar nominations for Enemies, A Love Story and her finest moment, as Lilly Dillon in Stephen Frears’ masterful modern noir, The Grifters.

In 1996, Huston bit the bullet and pursued directing, a career that has also provided mostly uphill battles despite her never having bungled the assignment. Bastard Out of Carolina, based on the novel by Dorothy Allison, depicted the sexual abuse of a child in no uncertain terms and found itself courting controversy from its initial film festival screenings (including a TIFF reception that saw it subsequently banned in the east coast). A theatrical release was abandoned in favour of cable television, where it won an Emmy and earned Huston a prize from the Directors Guild. Her next feature, Agnes Browne in 1999, had trouble from the start, when Rosie O’Donnell dropped out of playing the lead and Huston taking over (she does it beautifully, actually, and I find this film wonderful) before a botched distribution saw it disappear unnoticed.  Since then, Huston’s only full-length effort as a director has been for Hallmark, Riding the Bus With My Sister, which saw her directing O’Donnell and which still had difficult birthing pains. O’Donnell detailed on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing podcast that Hallmark asked her to side with them against Huston’s final cut and promised to promote her for an Emmy nomination if she’d agree. O’Donnell’s response was to tell “the suits” that they were dealing with the daughter of one of the most legendary American directors in film history and a great actor and director in her own right, and had no business telling a real artist what to do.

It’s likely that Huston’s directorial career is, like most in the film business, a few peaks of the iceberg above the surface and a great number of stalled projects below it, and one wouldn’t blame her for feeling less compulsion to pursue it as the years go on. Appearances on screen haven’t been as generous in recent times: she spends a great deal of her time as a voiceover artist punctuated by a number of small appearances and cameos.  A television series in the era of prestige TV is a great comeback for an actress north of forty but Huston’s opportunity for this, Smash, didn’t go so well. (Her episodes of Transparent were better.) Her brief appearance in John Wick 3 led to a bigger press tour than she’d had in years, though its effects remain to be seen; the most notable result was the controversial Vulture interview promoting it.

The hubbub over the interview was minimal, however, and its contents only served to remind us of this superb talent’s compelling elements: that gorgeous, smooth, whiskey-soaked voice and beautiful but unwieldy face (she’s the example of “sexy ugly” that is uttered in Kissing Jessica Stein), the classy, charming delivery of straightforward, sometimes merciless truth. Allen said he cast her as Dolores in Crimes and Misdemeanors because he loved the idea of this physically imposing and impressive woman playing someone so desperate and insecure, that the contradiction made the character unforgettable. Today, celebrated by nostalgia culture for her two most gothic roles, as Nicolas Roeg’s Grand High Witch and as Morticia Addams, she remains so.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou, except where noted. Many thanks to Colin Biggs, Pat Mullen, Matthew Simpson for their generous contributions.

 

MUST-SEE

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Milos Forman, 1975

Huston spent the seventies thriving as a model with only the occasional opportunity to act, and it would be years before she would make an impression as anything other than her father’s daughter or, as in the case for her brief appearance here, as Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend. She and Aurore Clement have blink-or-you’ll-miss-them cameos in the background of a scene of this multiple Oscar winner, one of still only three films to win the top five prizes at the Academy Awards. After being sentenced to jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Nicholson convinces the authorities that he is crazy enough to serve his sentence in a mental institution instead of prison, once there spinning his plans for escape or release but for the care of a nurse (Louise Fletcher) who is severe to the point of making prison seem preferable. A fascinating drama about life’s biggest con (the illusion of choice) highlighted by rich characters and a marvelous screenplay, expertly directed and performed with exceptional skill by its leads as well as its budding supporting cast, including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif (earning himself an Oscar nomination) in early career appearances.

 

This Is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner, 1984

Huston’s having previously appeared on her friend Penny Marshall’s sitcom Laverne and Shirley also led to her small role in Reiner’s all-time classic ‘mockumentary’, the start of a genre that has never been surpassed. This incredibly funny exercise in madness concerns itself with the crazy adventures of Spinal Tap, a heavy metal band who were once on top of the world and are now finding their popularity waning. As their concerts start grinding down to smaller and smaller venues, the three members of the band (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer) do their best to keep the feeling alive with their impressive ideas about music and their insatiable appetite for the good life. Their inspiration leads them to such classic choices as hiring Huston to design an 18-inch replica of Stonehenge as a backdrop, as well as their special amplifier that goes up to 11. Featuring early career appearances by Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr., and Fran Drescher, this delightful rib-tickler is good for repeat viewings. Guest took over as director for later films of the same ilk, including Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show.

 

Prizzi’s Honor

John Huston, 1985

Pat Mullen: Any concerns that Huston was the OG nepo baby were surely laid to rest with her performance in this film directed by her father John. Playing Maerose, the saucy daughter of a mob boss, she strikes the right balance between vulgar and vulnerable. When Maerose’s flame, Charley (Jack Nicholson) falls in love with a fellow assassin (Kathleen Turner), Maerose burns with the fury of a woman scorned. Huston steals every scene she’s in with a performance that calls for deft physical comedy, but also a ferocious edge, playing “the family scandal” of the Prizzi dynasty. Thanks to some dramatic range in her eyes and eyebrows that outmatches the muscle that most actors have in their entire body, she finds the sweet spot between gangster’s moll and jilted lover, often carrying the dramatic beats of a film that’s as dark as it is funny. She’s the highlight in one of the best comedies of the 1980s.  For her performance, Huston won Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, Boston Society of Film Critics, Kansas Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics, and was nominated at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes.

 

The Dead

John Huston, 1987

John Huston made this, his last, film in a wheelchair with a respirator to help him get through each day, but there’s no indication in the final product that there was anything less than an artist fully on his game behind the camera. Working from a letter-perfect screenplay by his son Tony, adapted from the “Dubliners” story of the same name by James Joyce, it takes place in turn-of-the-century Ireland at a Christmas dinner where old friends have gathered. As the evening progresses, they each relate stories about the past, primarily remembrances of those who have gone on to the next world but remain in their hearts. Huston gives one of her most delicate and endearing performances as the guest who reveals her heartbreaking story last, her intonations of Joyce’s poetic dialogue one of the many gorgeous elements of enchantment in this absolutely perfect film. Huston won the Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics awards (as both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress).

 

Crimes & Misdemeanors

Woody Allen, 1989

Pat Mullen: There’s a scene early in Crimes & Misdemeanors when Huston’s character Dolores stares vacantly into the distance. Her face has a glimmer of pensive nostalgia as the image dissolves to a flashback in which she’s running on the beach with her beau Judah (Martin Landau). Dolores tries to impress him by saying something about classical music, but confuses Schubert with Schumann. Judah, a schmuck, corrects Dolores by saying she’s talking about Schubert, whose music reminds him of her because Schubert is “the sad one.” The image cuts back to Dolores and all the warmth from Huston’s face is drained as the weight of lost time eats away at her, and she summons the courage to demand that Judah finally leave his wife. The confrontation scene, shot vividly against backlit venetian blinds and tacky ’80s pastel décor, lets the emotion of Huston’s performance nearly burst from the frame. Dolores lets Huston spin the “other woman” character on its head with a mercurial performance that reminds the viewer that someone always loses in the game of love. Huston earned an Oscar nomination that year for Enemies, A Love Story, but frankly would have deserved Oscar number two for this performance that helps make Crimes & Misdemeanors the best dramatic film of Allen’s career.  Huston was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance.

 

Enemies, a Love Story

Paul Mazursky, 1989

Ron Silver survives the Holocaust and begins life anew in ’40s’ New York City. Having lost his first wife (Huston) in the camps, he marries his Polish housekeeper (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska) while carrying on an affair with his sexy mistress (Lena Olin). When Huston shows up, revealing herself to have survived against all odds, he makes certain that she isn’t a ghost before realizing he is legally married to two women…but what can a man do with two wives that he can’t do with three? Eventually he succumbs to Olin’s pressure and marries her too. “Don’t worry, she won’t divorce you,” Huston’s Tamara tells him. “If she does, you can always go to the other one, if she throws you out, you can come to me.” Based on the story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (who also wrote the story upon which Yentl is based), this delightful film features fantastic acting and hilarious dialogue. (“If every man had his way, every woman would lie down a prostitute and wake up a virgin.”) Mazursky and Roger L. Simon’s screenplay is excellent, and the period flavour tangibly accurate.  Huston won the Kansas City Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics awards, and was nominated for an Academy Award, and the Los Angeles Film Critics award.

 

The Grifters

Stephen Frears, 1990

Diane Lane gave an interview in 2008 about the lax attitude she was taking towards acting and her feelings about possibly quitting: “Basically, the job I want to do next has already been done, by Anjelica Huston in The Grifters.” Huston earned her third (and, to date, most recent) Oscar nomination for her universally acclaimed performance as Lily Dillon, one of three interconnected con artists in Frears’ fascinating, modern noir.  Lily works for the mob, going back and forth between racetracks and betting her bosses’ money to lower the odds and decrease the output to players. Her son Roy (John Cusack) is a short-time grifter who does small-time deals to make money, mostly involving tricking bartenders and waitresses with the ways he can manipulate money. Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) was once a specialist in the long-term grift, setting up huge scam operations that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for her and her cohorts, but now uses her body to get what she wants from people on the spot. How these three wheel and deal each other in an effort to survive makes for a fantastic viewing experience, a savagely funny (and just plain savage) descent into a dark and unforgiving world. The gorgeous photography manages to actually capture the look of film noir in colour, choosing red as a substitute for black and making it the colour whose gradations accentuate the look of every scene. Superbly adapted from the story by Jim Thompson. Huston won the Los Angeles Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, Boston Film Critics (these were also for The Witches), Independent Spirit Award, and was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, the New York Film Critics, Chicago Film Critics, and Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics awards.

 

The Witches

Nicolas Roeg, 1990

Huston’s eternal status as style icon was guaranteed by her performances in this Roeg classic, a superb adaptation of Roald Dahl, as well as her following it with Morticia Addams a year later. After having been told by his grandmother (actress and filmmaker Mai Zetterling) about the existence of witches, a young boy (Jasen Fisher) is surprised to stumble upon a convention of them at the hotel where the two of them are vacationing. Thanks to Dahl’s chiaroscuro imagination, you’ll never know what happens next, particularly when the Grand High Witch (Huston has endless amounts of fun chewing up the scenery) turns him into a mouse. Terrific characters, marvelous performances and dead-on direction make this one of the best family films out there. That said, don’t show it to anyone too young; some parts are really just too scary for the tinier tots. The makeup effects were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the last time that Henson oversaw the work personally before his untimely death. Huston won the Boston Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics (these were also for The Grifters), and was nominated for the Saturn Award.

 

The Addams Family

Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991

Of the many retro television shows that have made it to the big screen, this comedy and its superior sequel are among the very best (only the Brady Bunch movies spring immediately to mind as worthy rivals). Impeccably cast, it stars Raul Julia and Huston as Gomez and Morticia Addams, heads of a kooky family, though as with the television show the joke here is that for all their outward, ghoulish appearance, they’re far more functional and loving than the people who pass for “normal”. The Addams’ crooked lawyer (Dan Hedaya) is convinced by his tough loan shark (Elizabeth Wilson) to rob the family estate in order to pay back his debts. The plan is to get Wilson’s son (Christopher Lloyd) into the household posing as the missing Uncle Fester, an easy task considering he is a dead ringer. Huston is divine as the kindly, loving mother in a black funeral shroud who makes sure that when her children are playing with knives, they use the biggest ones possible. Christina Ricci shines as the deadpan daughter Wednesday, and Dana Ivey is hilarious as Hedaya’s frustrated wife. The plot is sometimes stringy, but it is highlighted by some very funny jokes that make for a fun viewing if not an actual film experience. The costumes and production design are excellent.  Huston was nominated for a Golden Globe, an MTV Movie Award (for Best Kiss), and a Fangoria Chainsaw Award.

The Player

Robert Altman, 1992

Colin Biggs: Altman’s ultra-cynical satire of La La Land has aged into truth in the 32 years since its release. The line sprinkled throughout The Player (“Movies. Now more than ever”) could be heard repeatedly after the pandemic and during the SAG/WGA strikes. Altman clashed against the meat-grinder that is Hollywood frequently, fighting the system and creating minor miracles like MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville. He would be horrified by what takes place in studios now. Or maybe not. Altman seemed to understand all too well the coming quantity-based approach to films solely focused on four-quadrant marketing. Fittingly, he excoriates that mindset with a film centered on Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a studio executive who draws the ire of a writer who took rejection a little too harshly. Griffin’s cruelty to underlings finally catches up with him when he receives a letter that promises his demise. Angling for a promotion and sniffing out his would-be killer, Griffin interacts with several A-list actors who play themselves (Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Bruce Willis) mixed among other actors playing characters, a choice that places the audience in Griffin’s shoes as he stumbles through what the hell is going on. Excellent at providing bite and a compelling mystery, The Player is an underseen classic.

 

Manhattan Murder Mystery

Woody Allen, 1993

A number of Allen’s films haven’t aged well for today’s cultural requirements. His explorations of the failures of insecure masculinity aren’t really what is of great concern for anyone not already distracted by the controversies of his disastrous personal life. Not that this delightful caper, in resurrecting the playful chemistry between his cynical nebbish and Diane Keaton’s delightful goof, isn’t replete with the same obsession, but it’s sublimated beautifully into the tale of a bored housewife (Keaton) who insists that her neighbour has been murdered by her husband. Her book editor husband (Allen) ignores her claims as paranoid nonsense before the evidence begins to stack up and their friends get involved in helping them investigate clues. Having thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with her on Crimes & Misdemeanors, Allen wrote Huston’s role with her in mind, a tough-talking author whose new release he is overseeing, and she gives one of her most memorable turns, matched beautifully by Alan Alda as the couple’s friend who could also be making play for Keaton at the same time that he is helping her solve a mystery. Featuring small appearances by Joy Behar, Lynn Cohen, Ron Rifkin and a very young Zach Braff, it beautifully photographs some of Manhattan’s most picturesque locations and is fun from beginning to end. Huston was nominated for a BAFTA.

 

Addams Family Values

Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993

In this superior sequel to the 1991 comedy, the kooky, creepy Addams family find themselves welcoming a new addition to their family: a baby boy! Now the two older children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) are thrown in a jealous tizzy, while the baby’s new nanny (Joan Cusack) captures the fancy of their lonely bachelor uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd). Sonnenfeld returns once again to direct this very funny comedy, aided by a darkly humorous script by Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, In and Out) that outweighs the weaker original. The drawback is that Huston’s brilliant portrayal of Morticia Addams takes a backseat in the plot and isn’t featured as much as it should be. Cusack brings comic genius to her part, and Ricci shines in a much more developed role as the family’s budding teenager (imagine angst on an apocalyptic level). Huston was nominated for a Golden Globe, Saturn Award, and American Comedy Award.

 

Bastard Out of Carolina

Anjelica Huston, 1996

Huston makes an incredible debut as director with this riveting drama. Based on Dorothy Allison’s novel, it concerns the harrowing experiences of a little girl (an excellent Jena Malone) who endures being sexually abused by her sadistic stepfather (Ron Eldard) without her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) being aware. Assembling an impressive cast, which also includes a terrific supporting performance by Diana Scarwid (just look at her face when she sees the bruise on Malone’s body), this incredibly painful experience is one of the most honest films ever made on the subject of child abuse, refusing to allow us distance from the issue and making for a film that is both challenging and stimulating. At the same time, Huston’s steady hand as director serves the story and makes sure that we are constantly seeing the film through the eyes of the characters and not any personal judgments. Huston won a Certificate of Merit at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials from the Directors Guild, and was nominated for an Emmy and by the Online Film & TV Association.

 

Ever After

Andy Tennant, 1998

Richly enjoyable reboot of Cinderella finds Drew Barrymore as a plucky young lass living with an insensitive stepmother (Huston) and two lazy stepsisters (Megan Dodds, Melanie Lynskey). This time she’s not waiting for a prince to save her, so when she finds one we’re happy she’s getting some but not actually relieved about the natural course of romance. Barrymore’s Danielle is a book lover who is constantly looking for new ways to expand her mind and learn more about the world around her. Spirited performances (especially by Barrymore, who couldn’t be more sincere), an appropriately light touch by director Tennant and beautiful production values are just some of the reasons to watch this wonderful film.  Huston won a Blockbuster Entertainment Award and was nominated for a Teen Choice Award (for Choice Sleazebag), an Online Film & TV Association Award, and a Saturn Award

 

Agnes Browne

Anjelica Huston, 1999

Huston’s adaptation of Brendan O’Carroll’s novel The Mammy is her only directorial effort that began and ended as a proper feature film, though it had more than its fair share of struggles to reach the screens. After Rosie O’Donnell dropped out, Huston was pressed to direct herself in the titular lead role as an Irish mother who is left to raise seven children when her husband dies. With these kids in her charge, and her own personal well-being to consider, Agnes charges ahead without any fear, aided by her best friend (a fantastic Marion O’Dwyer) and the love of her kids. Not in any way the dour, depressing movie you’d expect it to be, Agnes Browne is buoyed by humour and lots of love, displaying an affection for local Irish life in the sixties and capped with a wonderful Tom Jones-ex-machina plot twist. The scenes with Huston and O’Dwyer and their incredibly enviable friendship are the film’s best, one whose issues with distribution saw its release botched before mixed reviews killed any hope of a proper distribution, and it’s a shame. Huston won the Youth Jury Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival

 

The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson, 2001

Anderson’s follow-up to his acclaimed Rushmore is also his first outing with Huston, who would be linked with his ensemble going forward. The celebrated auteur outdoes his previous effort with an even better comedy that centres around a troubled family who have hit rock bottom and need help to be pushed into the next phase of their lives. Royal Tenenbaum (an excellent Gene Hackman) is the long-absent patriarch of the family who returns to the household to announce he is terminally ill. His return couldn’t be more perfectly timed: his three children, once geniuses as youngsters, have all seen better days. Chas (Ben Stiller), a wall-street champion by the time he was in junior high, has come undone since the tragic death of his wife in a plane crash; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), an award-winning playwright by the age of nine, is trapped in an unhappy marriage and hasn’t completed a play in seven years; Richie (Luke Wilson), a tennis champion by seventeen, quit the game after a bad loss and has been travelling around the world on an ocean liner for years. The brilliant examination of family dysfunction here lies in the possibility that these kids weren’t geniuses because of any preternatural gifts they were born with, but because their unhappiness with their parents’ separation at a young age forced them to try so much harder to fit in. Now that Royal has returned, are they able to come together again as a family and improve their lives? Huston is terrific as the children’s mother, who is herself hoping to marry a gold-hearted accountant (Danny Glover) if her husband will either give her a divorce or die first. The beautiful trick that Anderson plays on his audience is that although the film is hilariously bent throughout most of its running time, it reveals itself to be incredibly touching by its conclusion, and the characters you have been watching will have really endeared themselves to you. Huston was nominated for a Satellite Award, and by the Phoenix Film Critics Society.

 

Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson, 2018

An ancient wound between man and dog has not healed by the mid twenty-first century and the dog-hating Kobayashi dynasty still in control of Nagasaki City many centuries after trying to destroy all the dogs in their kingdom. A “snout flu” has infected the city’s canines and this minor illness is used as an excuse to exile them to a trash island off the coast of their metropolis; their liberal, dog-loving opponents support a scientist whose vaccine for the flu has been suppressed and put the lab team in danger. The humans in this story, being Japanese, all speak that language except when the opportunity is presented to have a translator (voiced by Frances McDormand) deliver their dialogue to us (which furthers the atmosphere of manipulative propaganda that the story is commenting on), while the dog members of this beautifully animated film have their barks translated for us directly into English. On the island upon which these furry friends have been exiled, three former housepets follow an alpha dog, a formerly stray leader (Bryan Cranston) from one garbage pile to another until a mysterious thing happens: a young member of the Kobayashi family crash lands on their island in search of his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first pet to have been sent to the island, and they decide to help reunite boy and beast. Back in the city, a foreign exchange student and burgeoning activist teenager (Greta Gerwig) smells a conspiracy in the air and enlists her computer hacker friend to help take down a corrupt regime. It’s likely that her characterization as a westerner is a way to avoid worrying about translating her dialogue, but whether or not this subplot comments on or criticizes the White Saviour narrative that is being threatened here is not a point that audiences have agreed on since this film was released. Serving so much entertainment on so many levels, this delightful film’s witty script is always hard to predict, and despite Anderson once again bringing us to the familiar Boys Only treehouse of his previous films (complete with daddy issues), finding the next twist in the loopy, complicated but satisfying plot is as much a pleasure as looking at the dazzling visuals. Using very modern and slick-looking stop-motion animation, every image emphasizes brightly rendered colours for a perfect reminiscence of Tohoscope films of the fifties. The humorous dialogue and characterization of the dogs, all of them as loyal, emotional and noble as your best four-legged friends ever were, make for deep laughs at almost every turn, resulting in the filmmaker’s strongest work in years. Huston, humorously cast as “Mute Poodle,” is an in-joke which she explains here.

 

 

WORTHY

Hamlet

Tony Richardson, 1969

Richardson directed a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the great Dane at the Roundhouse Theatre in the late sixties, then transferred the production to film for posterity. Shot using more or less the same cast and turning the theatre into a studio, it’s filmed in a straightforward fashion with little flourish but never feels like a play on film: there’s enough ingenuity with camera angles to give it the dimensions of a full-blooded cinematic adaptation, while the script is pared down, clocking in at half of the play’s usual running time and featuring a couple of scenes boldly re-arranged. Nicol Williamson’s interpretation of the lead role favours the countercultural spirit of the day, playing Hamlet without much brooding and focusing instead of on upending the corrupt ruling order with his increasingly erratic ways. Marianne Faithfull makes a haunting, lovely Ophelia while Judy Parfitt appears as an incisive, elegant Gertrude, but what impresses most is Richardson’s pace, it moves at a healthy trot without ever feeling rushed, and includes a number of Hamlet’s soliloquies (more than Olivier held on to in his version) that don’t slow the experience down. Look for a teenage Huston as one of the court ladies. (She was Faithful’s understudy in the stage version.)

 

The Crossing Guard

Sean Penn, 1995

The strongest of Penn’s efforts as director, certainly his least pretentious, about a grieving father (Jack Nicholson) who is caught in a moral dilemma when the drunk driver responsible for his daughter’s death (David Morse) is about to be released from prison. Huston, appearing opposite Jack five years after their breakup, is fantastic as his ex-wife, who was driven away from her husband by their inability to communicate through grief, and there’s also a small but effective performance by Robin Wright as Morse’s kindhearted girlfriend. Excellent character work, sometimes at the cost of the plot’s forward movement, but powerful nonetheless. Huston was nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG award.

 

Buffalo ’66

Vincent Gallo, 1998

Gallo is released from prison and decides to go home and visit his parents (Ben Gazzara, Huston). He has been telling them that his absence was due to his making a fortune elsewhere and he is living with a really nice girl; in order to keep this pretense up, he kidnaps a young tap-dancing student (Christina Ricci) and forces her to come home with him and pretend they’re happily in love but, as gets more experience with the lass, her kindly innocence wins him over and he really does begin to have feelings for her. Gallo’s directorial debut at first appears to be another pretentious, useless artfest with an Andy Warhol bent, but stick around and the brilliant acting (especially Huston and a surprisingly unspoiled Ricci) will keep you enthralled until the heartfelt ending.

 

Phoenix

Danny Cannon, 1998

Thoroughly satisfying entry in the film noir genre stars Ray Liotta as a crooked cop with a gambling problem who teams up with three dubiously moral members of the force to pull off a big heist with the hope of paying off his debts. The set-up is simple: rob the loan shark (Giancarlo Esposito) who Liotta’s cop friend Anthony LaPaglia works for to pay off the creepy mob boss (Tom Noonan, especially memorable) to whom he owes the money, but as it always happens, it doesn’t go quite according to plan and blood starts getting spilled. Jeremy Piven and Daniel Baldwin round out the main cast, while Huston is stunning as a beautiful bartender who appeals to the side of Liotta that longs for a better life. It has overt shades of Tarantino and Chinatown, and not one plot point comes as a surprise, but it borrows from its inspirations with panache and features such genuinely interesting characters that the reminders are positive and not tiresome in any way.

 

Iron Jawed Angels

Katja Von Garnier, 2004

Huston’s last time appearing at the Golden Globes as a nominee was when she was cited, and eventually won, for her supporting performance in this made-for-cable film about American women fighting for the vote during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor star as dedicated activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, whose insistence on disruptive, provocative tactics inspire the ire of National American Woman Suffrage Association president Carrie Chapman Catt (Huston), who considers them little better than terrorists. Despite being thrown in jail and tortured, these heroines stick to their principles and it eventually results in the 19th amendment, eventually finding unity with adversaries within their ranks who initially disagreed with their methods. The film is well acted but its low budget shows in a high number of cheap-looking sets (that prison is straight out of a community theatre production of Hairspray). Director von Garnier was criticized for elements of the film meant to appeal to modern audiences, such as the invention of a romantic interest for Paul (played by a snacky Patrick Dempsey) and a soundtrack bursting with intentionally anachronistic selections, but the latter move only plays poorly now because it hasn’t aged well. Huston deserved her prizes for her performance, her towering physicality and withering gaze almost as insurmountable an obstacle as the culture’s refusal to accept the notion that women could possibly be people. Huston also won a Satellite Award and was nominated for an Emmy and an Online Film & TV Association award.

 

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson, 2007

There’s a moment of pure beauty somewhere in this underappreciated Anderson film, where Adrien Brody takes the short story his brother just wrote and reads it privately in a secluded compartment of the train they’re travelling on. It brings him to tears, and is one of the loveliest, most poignant bits of the experience. Sadly, for those audiences members who really respond to it, the moment turns out to be a harbinger of things not to come, for while this is a gorgeously shot work of art, it doesn’t quite achieve the level of emotional delicacy it seems to be reaching for. Brody, Jason Schwartzman (who co-wrote the script with his cousin Roman Coppola and Anderson) and Owen Wilson play three estranged brothers who reunite in India a year after their father died in a tragic accident. Wilson is intent on making them close again, though it doesn’t take long before the personality differences that drove them apart rear their ugly heads and drive a wedge between the three siblings. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography is the most incredible work he’s done yet: rather than the self-consciously artificial settings of The Life Aquatic, this is shot in the real India, using natural elements to produce the solid candy colours that make Anderson’s work so distinctive. Obvious influences by the humanist films of Satyajit Ray (including the use of his film’s scores on the soundtrack) and a few nods to Black Narcissus only enrich the experience, capped off by Huston appearing as the final piece of the puzzle in the film’s devastating conclusion. (It is to date her last time appearing as more than a voice in an Anderson film.)

 

A Cat in Paris

Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol, 2010

Stylish, angular animation and a charming narrative heighten the experience of this miniature charmer, about a young girl who has voluntarily gone mute since the death of her father at the hands of a nasty gangster. Her police officer mother does her best to keep a home full of love but finds devotion to her daughter difficult in light of her duties on the street. Across the way lives a cat burglar who is getting away with major jewel heists, and unbeknownst to our young heroine is aided by her own pet feline who ventures over to the thief’s abode each night while his real mistress sleeps. When our protagonists’ paths cross with the bad guy who ruined their lives years ago and is out to commit another heist, the crafty burglar becomes an unexpected hero. Paris is drawn beautifully and the characters rope you in far more to the experience than you would expect from a 70-minute adventure so committed to a style devoid of any realism. The English-language version features voice work by Huston, Marcia Gay Harden and Matthew Modine.

 

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

Lisa Immordino Vreeland, 2011

Pat Mullen: Audiences who watched Raja play Vreeland in the All Stars 7 Snatch Game on Drag Race and didn’t get the joke might want to check out this terrific documentary about the late Harper’s Bazaar fashionista and former Vogue editor-in-chief. Vreeland has a unique personality that deserves to be remembered and immortalized at more costume parties. Directed by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law Lisa with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frédéric Tcheng serving as co-directors, the film features a who’s who of Hollywood royalty with an impressive roster of talking heads characterizing Vreeland’s signature eye for fashion. Among them is Huston, who touches upon her career as a model and gives credit to Vreeland for bringing both an edge and a unique sensibility to fashion journalism. Her interviews are insightful, and involve interesting tidbits about her own career. It’s not essential viewing in Huston’s filmography, but a worthwhile doc.

 

James McNeill Whistler and the Case for Beauty

Norman Stone, 2014

Huston contributes her trademark warm and wise narration to this short documentary about the painter responsible for one of the most famous American paintings ever created, a work of art whose colloquial name made it into a Cole Porter song. Commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother” (or “Mama”) but actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, it was one of the many accomplishments of an artist whose life was as complex and interesting as his work. Stone makes the mistake of many a low-key PBS program by including historical re-enactments that are awash in cheap wigs (and it’s obvious that Daniel Arbon as Whistler is dabbing at a dry print and not a real canvas), but the on-camera interviews provide rich information. Kevin Kline reads Whistler’s letters.

 

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Chad Stahelski, 2019

Huston’s small appearance in this major film was her biggest role in years and she enjoyed something of a publicity tour with it, including a Vulture magazine article that drew criticism for her unfiltered remarks. (She’d rather die than be in Poms, she’d work with Woody Allen again in a heartbeat, and she was disapproving of how Penny Marshall lived her final days.) Having just been ex-communicated from the international network of fancy assassins, with their steampunk headquarters teeming with rotary phones and tattooed girls updating chalkboards, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is now on the run, getting some quick help for a serious injury before going on a quest to save his own life. Visiting old acquaintances, cashing in some favours and traveling as far as Casablanca, Wick traverses the usual settings of old world hotels and neon-lit alleyways destroying everyone in his path, climbing up the ranks of his shadowy organization looking to get right with the “high table” that controls it all. After a disappointing second act that continued the adventures of the excellent original, this third chapter is a refreshing bit of bloody whimsy, ridiculously expanding the character’s universe to include such magical figures as Huston, playing an underworld matriarch, and Halle Berry as his jaded contact living in the middle east with her vicious guard dogs. Some might be disappointed by what they see as Sean Connery Bond threatening to go Roger Moore, but for the most part it gets more fun the more elaborately it spins its yarn, relying a bit less on endless one-on-one combat (though don’t worry, there’s plenty of carnage) and leaving more of an impression of its colourful cinematography and memorable cast. A subplot involving Asia Kate Dillon as an adjudicator following Wick’s path and punishing those who helped him is the only element that doesn’t quite fit, holding onto a kind of Matrix darkness that the rest of the film is gleefully avoiding, and a number of the computer-generated visual effects backfire, but it never loses its bounce and generally balances its humour and mayhem with an enjoyably even tone.

 

FOR THE CURIOUS

 

A Walk with Love and Death

John Huston, 1969

John casts his daughter in her movie debut for this strange romantic drama set in medieval Europe. The ravaged French countryside has the distant troubles of battle made that much worse by a peasant revolt that has seen the masses take their anger out on the country’s nobles. A young man makes a beautiful girl his personal responsibility after finding her alone in a church, despite the fact that she was prepared to go to a nunnery following the murder of her family. Instead of allowing her to be cloistered, he accompanies her to her cousin’s estate but, when that is fraught with misadventure as well, they are forced to keep moving in search of safety while, most important, love between them blooms. Great chemistry between the leads and a chance to see Anjelica so young and dewy is a real treat. It’s as obvious that she has talent as it is that she’s uncomfortable doing the equivalent of working in your dad’s store, but what really keeps this from achieving classic status is the weird middle ground between genres that it navigates. The archly poetic nature of much of the romantic dialogue is at odds with the gritty presentation of the period, and the film can never decide if it wants to be seriously historical or something out of a fairy tale. That said, it’s far more enjoyable than it could be even if it is no classic.

 

Sinful Davey

John Huston, 1969

An attempt to cash in on the popularity of Tom Jones with another bawdy tale of a capricious rogue, this time an early nineteenth-century Scot named Davey Haggart (upon whose questionably factual autobiography the screenplay is based). John Hurt plays the lead with effortless charm, a rapscallion whose father was executed for crimes when he was only 21 and exists solely as a monument that young Davey built for him out of the stones he found near the workhouse where he grew up. Now an adult and free to roam the earth, Davey intends to repeat all the crimes of his notorious father, beginning by abandoning his post playing the drum in the royal marching band, then holding up a stagecoach, breaking out of jail by creating his own brothel within its walls and, his ultimate goal, heading to the Duke of Argyll to rob him as his father did before. The director later complained that producer Walter Mirisch took over final cut and ruined his vision of the film, but what remains is a delight, frothy and fun and its picaresque narrative paced well to match the breathless passion of its young and naïve protagonist. Brenda Fricker and Fionnula Flanagan appear in early roles (as does Anjelica as an extra, although I couldn’t spot her), while Robert Morley puts a delicious finishing touch to the conclusion as the targeted duke.

 

Swashbuckler

James Gladstone, 1976

Huston has one of her major appearances in a feature film in the seventies here and, notably, doesn’t utter a single word in the role of “Woman of Dark Visage.” It’s a moderately fun adventure that tries to recapture the glory days of Errol Flynn’s high-seas epics but fails. Robert Shaw is unlikable as the pirate captain who helps a young woman (a terrifically sprightly Genevieve Bujold) avenge her father’s imprisonment from a cruel Jamaican governor (Peter Boyle, who looks as foolish in the role of villain as Shaw does playing the hero). There’s lots of swordplay and even some humour between Shaw and best friend James Earl Jones, but the narrative is so weak that it seems to end without ever having gone anywhere. The old Flynn movies had a genuine sense of adventure, as well as much stronger writing than this, plus Flynn himself was a brilliantly untouchable figure of heroism. Shaw gives you the impression that he can’t wait to stop fighting in order to hit the next bar for a drink of rum. Thankfully, future filmmakers saw more to Huston’s talent than just her exotic looks.

 

The Last Tycoon

Elia Kazan, 1976

Colin Biggs: Despite being Kazan’s last film, The Last Tycoon is not a fond farewell to the studio system that defined Hollywood. At times, you feel his vitriol bleed through the proceedings (no doubt influenced by his HUAC testimony), using storylines to punch holes through the haze of old Hollywood. In the end, perhaps a cold look at the narcissism and greed that dominates art makes a better testament to the studio system than anything else. Robert DeNiro plays the young studio chief Monroe Stahr with a reserve unseen in his other, more histrionic parts. Not that Monroe can’t manipulate or strong-arm others like Vito Corleone or Al Capone; he just does it quietly. Monroe is a man who puts out fires at the studio, steamrolling a pending writer’s strike and managing large personalities, but, lately, he finds himself getting waylaid by a young woman (Ingrid Boulting) who resembles his dead wife. It features a high-wattage ensemble of stars (old and new) like Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson, Ray Milland, Donald Pleasance, Huston, and Robert Mitchum. Everyone is constantly scrambling to get a step higher on the Hollywood ladder in Kazan’s picture, and in the process, the once vibrant dream fades from their eyes.

 

Frances

Graeme Clifford, 1982

Huston is credited as a little more than an extra in this film although you might have trouble spotting her. Frances Farmer rose up from a small town existence to become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars in the 1930s. Dissatisfied with the token roles handed out to women at the time, she fought hard to be taken seriously as an actress, pursuing that goal until it drove her past the brink of sanity and into a mental asylum. There she was analyzed and abused for years before a lobotomy was performed on her in this compelling, probing look at Farmer’s life based on her own writings. A lot of it actually plays like trashy exploitation except for the mesmerizing performance by Jessica Lange, in the role that established her as a serious actress, and Kim Stanley as her ambitious mother, who give the film a great deal more respectability than it deserves. As Karina Longworth’s listeners might know, evidence for most of the film’s claims has gone soft in the years since its release.

 

The Ice Pirates

Stewart Raffill, 1984

Hilariously campy science-fiction adventure about futuristic pirates in a dried-up universe, who navigate the stars in search of its most precious resource, water. The one planet that is brimming over with water is rigorously controlled by evil Templars who seek to make slaves of the cosmos, prompting our heroes to steal their supplies and provide themselves with the stuff for free. Robert Urich is the head of the brigands, a roguish devil who is thrilled to bits when the troupe kidnaps a princess (Mary Crosby) for ransom and is led by her to to the “seventh world”, a place where water is plentiful and free. Huston co-stars in a pre-Prizzi’s Honor role as the tough gal on the ship who can wield a sword with the best of them, her biggest role in a big release yet, and while the end product is something of an embarrassment, she has nothing to look back on with regret for her performance and speaks quite fondly of the project in her memoir. Too kitschy to ignore, it also stars Ron Perlman, and in a brief cameo, the unforgettable John Carradine.

 

Gardens of Stone

Francis Ford Coppola, 1987

The death of Coppola’s son Giancarlo just months before filming can be felt in this dark and brooding drama, about an aging war colonel who mentors the career of a young, gung-ho soldier as he prepares for action in Vietnam. Their relationship, as well as that of Caan with a beautiful woman (Huston) makes up the bulk of the dramatic, but never very interesting, story. Excellent performances, but the whole thing rests too much on Coppola’s trademark photographic genius while providing quite uneventful dialogue, while the story itself suffers from a lack of direction or momentum.

 

Mr. North

Danny Huston, 1988

This charming enterprise was directed by Huston’s half-brother Danny and executive-produced and written by his father John. A young Anthony Edwards is full of aplomb as a Yale student who pulls in extra money as a tutor and has just recently quit his last job working for a snooty Eastern seaboard family and their rotten children. Arriving in a tiny Rhode Island town, he begins working for a wheelchair-bound, elderly gentleman (Robert Mitchum) and convinces him through some sage advice to stop being afraid of life and start going out and enjoying himself more. This is a problem for Mitchum’s daughter, who has been quite adamant about keeping her father ill in order that he might die sooner and she can collect on the inheritance. Edwards also befriends other people in town, and uses his strange ability to conduct electricity through his body to help them with some of their minor ailments, gaining him the mistaken reputation of being a miracle healer. A winning ensemble cast makes this delightful adaptation of Theophilus Monk by Thornton Wilder really zing.

 

A Handful of Dust

Charles Sturridge, 1988

The crumbling importance of the aristocracy in 1930s England is the subject of this engrossing drama. Kristin Scott Thomas and James Wilby are excellent as a titled couple whose relationship is strained after her fling with a London boy (Rupert Graves) turns into a full-fledged affair. Add to that a death in the family and the two of them split completely from each other, she taking up residence in London with her lover and he journeying to the rugged jungles of Brazil and befriending a hermit (Alec Guinness). Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel has been given all the class it deserves, brought to life by a fantastic cast which also includes Judi Dench and Huston, and envisioned beautifully by the rich production and costume designs. The last act isn’t as juicy as it should be, and the film ends as a bit of a letdown, but it’s still a reputable production that showcases its talents well.

 

The Perez Family

Mira Nair, 1995

A Cuban family is trying to adjust to a new life in Miami in this middling film with an excellent cast. Alfred Molina has finally managed to make it over to America from Cuba to join his already established wife (Huston), but are they still the happy couple they once were? Hard to know considering that Huston is developing a deep romance with a policeman (Chazz Palminteri) and Molina is drawn to sexy Marisa Tomei. These characters have lots of potential but they’re not really explored enough to make the film memorable, nor is the story, based on the novel by Christine Bell, particularly interesting.

 

The Man from Elysian Fields

George Hickenlooper, 2001

Matthew Simpson: The consensus on The Man from Elysian Fields is that it is, in a word, fine.  The story follows Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia), a novelist whose novels don’t sell who, in order to provide for his wife and child, and with a push from office neighbour Luther Fox (Mick Jagger), becomes an escort for rich, older ladies. One such lady is Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams), the wife of famed writer and one of Byron’s personal heroes, Tobias Alcott (James Coburn).  Despite being heralded by Roger Ebert as one of the best of the year, the film is, as its reputation suggests, fine — and perhaps elevated to that place by its cast. One such cast member doing her best to elevate it is Huston, who shows up for just two scenes (and one background shot). Luther (Jagger), you see, is getting tired of being a whore. Jennifer (Huston) is the only client he still “services” personally, and over the years, he has fallen in love with her. In their first scene, this is made clear as they are both getting dressed post-sex. Their conversation is comfortable, like one of partners and equals, right up until she hands him a slip of paper. “What is this?” he inquires.  “Last month’s cheque, I forgot,” she replies. “So did I” he says quietly. The scene isn’t entirely memorable, but it sets the stage for her second, in which, at dinner, Luther confesses that he is in love with her and that he wants her to leave her husband and marry him. There’s only so much that can be done in two scenes in a film, but Huston nails everything about this moment. With only the slightest changes in her face, she ran the gamut from terrified to incredulous before bursting into laughter. Not a cruel laughter, mind you, but one of genuine amusement and obliviousness that he is serious. It’s a good scene in an otherwise fine movie and serves as a reminder both that there are no small parts and that sometimes a well-cast supporting role can add real impact to a film overall.

 

Blood Work

Clint Eastwood, 2002

Huston reported having a marvelous time performing in a small role in Eastwood’s middling psychological thriller, playing the main character’s cardiologist and bringing her indomitably tough persona to the role with all the exceptional grace that is her habit. Eastwood plays an FBI agent who is sent into retirement by a heart attack that he suffers while in pursuit of a serial killer, then years later, after a successful transplant is approached by a beautiful woman (Wanda De Jesus) who claims that her murdered sister’s heart is what saved his life. He pledges to the woman that he will find out who it was that killed her beloved relative, but the trail of evidence and clues he follows leads him towards what might be the case that ended up being his downfall. The plot is fairly diverting but mostly easy to predict, though there are delights to be gained from it, aside from Huston the cast includes newcomer Tina Lifford, fantastic as a police chief who helps Eastwood out in his unlawful investigating for old times’ sake.

 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson, 2004

Once-famous Cousteau-esque ocean explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is at the lowest point he has ever sunk in his life: his filmed adventures in the great big blue are no longer thrilling audiences, his marriage (to Huston) is falling apart, his best friend (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by a shark and he’s having trouble financing his next film project. Aboard his rickety ship Belafonte, Murray has to keep mutiny from occurring with his crew while also developing a relationship with the son (Owen Wilson) he never knew and protecting his interests from a snooping British journalist (Cate Blanchett) with possible ulterior motives. Anderson makes one of his most disappointing films, a comedy that isn’t funny enough, with a poignant subplot that isn’t nearly as moving as the other two films were. The pacing is sluggish and kills the snappy performances (the film could easily have been twenty to thirty minutes shorter), and the plot wanders just a bit too much before finally ending with a loud thud. It’s a real shame, because watching Murray play this kind of dry, sarcastic character is a reason to go to the movies in the first place, and Blanchett veritably rules the screen every chance she’s given. There’s also a delightful performance by Willem Dafoe, the production design is terrific, and Huston manages a few great moments of her own. Huston, as part of the ensemble, was nominated for a Boston Film Critics Award and Critics Choice Award

 

Choke

Clark Gregg, 2008

Gregg stated that when he met with Huston to discuss her taking on the role as the lead character’s mother in his directorial debut, an adaptation of the novel by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, she immediately began weeping as soon as he sat down opposite her. “My mother died when I was young,” she told him, “and I was raised by an Irish nanny, and you look just like her.” Gregg appears in a small role in the film, as does his father-in-law Joel Grey, but the majority of time is spent with lead Sam Rockwell and his adventures as a sex addict and scam artist who struggles to win over the heart of a kindly doctor (Kelly MacDonald) and even more so to pay the bills at the private hospital where his mother (Huston), who is suffering from dementia, is living. The emotional toil of her not recognizing him heavily provokes his compulsion to pursue aimless encounters with every woman he can find, while his habit of pretending to choke in restaurants in order to turn wealthy customers into sugar daddies speaks to his need to be nurtured, as explained by flashbacks to his troubled childhood. It’s a shame that the film’s very low budget is apparent in every shot, from the low-grade sound design to Huston’s cheap wigs (particularly in the sequences that try to de-age her when the main character is a kid), but the film is an easy watch thanks to an endless array of sterling performances. Huston’s ability to give a thorny story its emotionally resonant, simultaneously threatening and unsure centre is hinted at in Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited but is fully realized here. Huston won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance as part of the ensemble cast and was nominated for a Satellite Award

 

The Big Year

David Frankel, 2011

There’s no need to rush to watch this adorable comedy but you won’t mind it either, a charmer about enthusiastic bird watchers competing to outdo each other’s score on a traditional “big year,” in which hobbyists try to spot and catalogue as many bird species as possible. Wealthy CEO Steve Martin decides to retire to follow his dream, as does unemployed, divorced Jack Black, the two of them teaming up to take on reigning champion Owen Wilson, who is sacrificing his marriage to stay at the top of the game. Huston has a hilarious cameo as a tough-talking tourist boat captain who is at loggerheads with Wilson and helps his rivals in a key moment of the film. Frankel has never managed to equal the style or success of The Devil Wears Prada and doesn’t do so here, but you could do a lot worse.

 

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson, 2021

Another trip into the imagination of Wes Anderson, whose films combine the aesthetic charm of children’s picture books with an adult attitude towards sex and relationships for an overall whiff of whimsy that, while it has remained enjoyable over the years, hasn’t really gone anywhere new in two decades. No longer feeling the need to heal the pain of fraught father-son relationships that gave depth to his earliest works (from Rushmore to Fantastic Mr. Fox, particularly), Anderson has shown himself to still have the desire to craft new delicacies, and in this case has delivered another skillfully amusing yet remarkably unimportant film that purports to pay tribute to journalism.  In having not even the slightest verisimilitude to the experiences (real or emotional) of journalists, however, it is really just another tribute to his talent for framing and production design. The Liberty Kansas Evening Sun has had an office in the cheekily named French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (actually Angoulême) ever since the son of the newspaper’s editor thought up the idea as a temporary project and turned it into something permanent; the editor of this New Yorker-style periodical (played by Bill Murray) stipulated in his will that the magazine would cease publication with his death and, having now keeled over in his office and expired, we are left to contemplate the magazine’s final issue. Featuring Huston as narrator, it begins with a quick tour of Ennui hosted by Owen Wilson, in which Anderson lets us know how often he was watched all of Jacques Tati’s films, then goes into the Arts section where Tilda Swinton reports on an imprisoned madman (Benicio Del Toro) who turns the arts world on its head with his visually provocative paintings of his jail gardienne (Léa Seydoux). The politics section has Frances McDormand report on a May ’68-esque student uprising shot in the spirit of Nouvelle Vague where, thanks to Anderson’s sugar-sweet quirkiness, revolution is expressed through a game of chess and in which the reporter has a delightful affair with the leader of the revolt, played by a marvellously coiffed Timothée Chalamet. The last and weakest of the stories is the Food column, in which an excellent Jeffrey Wright tells the tale of a kidnapping solved by a world-class chef, followed by a quick obituary of Murray’s character to close off of the experience. Every bit of this film is a pleasant reverie, there’s never a moment that you can call boring and fans of Anderson’s won’t mind watching him play his greatest hits, but viewers are sent home with little more than the feeling of having had a good meal at a French restaurant, overwhelmed by content, comfortably sated and ready to expel it from our bodies and move on to something else.

 

SKIP IT

 

Casino Royale

Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, 1967

Huston helped her dad out by performing the inserts of Deborah Kerr’s hands in this parody of James Bond movies, which was probably funnier when it first came out in 1967. David Niven plays the famous superspy as a tottering old fart who gallivants about in a clunky car and speaks like the perfect British gentleman complete with Sherlock Holmes hat and pipe. Very freely based on Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, the story has Bond recruited out of retirement to fight the evil SMERSH organization and save the world from a collapse of civilization. He is assisted by a former agent who is now a Lady in a Scottish castle (Kerr at her most delightfully loopy), his illegitimate daughter with Mata Hari, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) and his questionably motivated nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). Ursula Andress does a hilarious sendup of her own image as one of the dangerous femmes fatale who are thrown at Bond to get in his way. The only really good thing to come out of this boring comedy is the beautiful, Oscar-nominated theme song “The Look of Love,” which has since been rerecorded endless times and was used in another Bond parody, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Bob Rafelson, 1981

This dreary update of the 1946 classic, adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, ups the ante on graphic sexuality but isn’t as entertaining. Jack Nicholson plays the shady drifter who takes a grunt job at a roadside gas station and finds himself getting steamy over the owner’s young, beautiful wife (Jessica Lange). The two begin an affair that culminates with them murdering the old man and getting away with it, but how long before their corrupt liaison works against them from within? The period details are perfection, right down to the grease spots on the wall, but the drama doesn’t have any snap. David Mamet’s pretentious screenplay is rife with great dialogue, but the author of countless misogynist plays about men sitting around yapping about their own glory is not a genre writer. Lange and Nicholson have terrific chemistry, and are quite bold in the film’s raunchy sex scenes, but hot sex can only make two hours go by quickly in real life. Huston appears as a lion tamer with whom Nicholson has an affair to break away from his leading lady’s machinations, a small but potent role that marked her upward path to the great success she would have later in the decade; much as she feared about doing Prizzi’s Honor later on, her co-starring with her famous boyfriend overshadowed most possibilities for breaking out as a critically acclaimed actress, but she makes an impression all the same.

 

The Golden Bowl

James Ivory, 2000

The worst Henry James adaptation since Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, a surprising misfire by the team of Merchant Ivory (Howards End, The Remains of the Day), who did better with the author’s The Bostonians decades earlier. Uma Thurman is a penniless woman traipsing around Europe who falls in love with an also impoverished Italian Count (Jeremy Northam). As their financial states don’t allow them to marry each other, Northam takes up with Thurman’s best friend (Kate Beckinsale), and Thurman ends up betrothed to Beckinsale’s billionaire father (Nick Nolte), but we’re never quite sure if she’s let her love for the prince burn away. The dramatic complications that ensue are never very interesting, and even Huston (in a rare bad performance) looks a little bored having to referee it all from the sides as the friend whom everyone takes in as a confidante. Every scene has a new wonder of production design that rivals the team’s best work, but nothing escapes the clear fact that the actors are all under-rehearsed and absolutely unsure of what they’re doing (when a great actress like Huston changes her accent in every scene you know something is wrong with the management). Thurman is strong but her character is too confusedly written to allow her to be in any way effective, and Beckinsale is never convincing as the Isabel Archer-like character (which Nicole Kidman did far better in The Portrait of a Lady) who has her world of innocence shattered in one fell swoop.

 

Daddy Day Care

Steve Carr, 2003

Pat Mullen: Huston, we have a problem. Anjelica went slumming all the way to the bank with this embarrassing Eddie Murphy comedy about two dads who—you guessed it—run a day care. Huston admittedly seems to be having a lot of fun playing the villainous Gwyneth Harridan, the headmistress of the posh rival day care. The performance calls for a lot of physical humour and her performance seems as playfully over-starched as Harrigan’s ill-fitting suits. Despite the obvious fact that the material is beneath her, Huston is a hoot in this box office hit that helped usher in a strange era in which Murphy and crass comics like Adam Sandler turned to kids’ movies to make a quick buck. But, hey, everyone needs to eat and, to her credit, Huston has yet to make a Marvel movie, which keeps her a step above other well-fed Hollywood stars.

Seraphim Falls

David Von Ancken, 2006

Liam Neeson and his posse relentlessly chase Pierce Brosnan through the forests and across the desert of post-Civil War USA in this bland drama. Why one is in pursuit of the other is left a complete mystery until long after you’ve realized that you don’t have a single emotion invested in either of these characters. Along the way they both come across the usual collection of homesteaders, kooky lawmen and feisty women that are common to these revisionist westerns, but this film doesn’t have nearly half the strength or pace of a movie like The Proposition (or, hell, even Cold Mountain). Huston’s cameo is welcome (even if it does come too late), but both Neeson and Brosnan give colourless performances and the direction and script are weak.

 

Art School Confidential

Terry Zwigoff, 2006

Zwigoff returns to the world of conflicted teenagers that he exposed so well in Ghost World but with inferior results. Max Minghella plays an aspiring artist who finds himself among a quirky collection of highly expressive students at the art college he has been dreaming about for years. Unfortunately, Zwigoff only mines the personalities of these characters for the first third of the movie, after which point it descends into a mess of a coming-of-age romance between Minghella and the nude model (Sophia Myles) whose photo drew him to the school in the first place. John Malkovich is fun as our protagonist’s exacting mentor, while Jim Broadbent does a terrific job of playing a starving artist whose devotion to his passion has driven him to insanity. Huston has an underused cameo as an art history professor, and she’s marvelous, but Daniel Clowes’s script includes an unnecessary subplot about a serial killer and then ends, as Ghost World does, with the use of Found Art as personal expression, but without the emotional resonance that made that film so good.

 

Martian Child

Menno Meyjes, 2007

Huston has a magnificent cameo that provides one of the few signs of life in this otherwise negligible drama, performing an emotional reaction to the protagonist’s story that is not likely to have been shared by the audience. Her Grifters co-star John Cusack plays a science-fiction writer whose sadness over his wife’s death is soon followed by the news that their planned adoption of a foster child has come through. He turns down the opportunity to fulfill this commitment out of grief, but upon meeting the kid, a socially awkward boy who spends most of his time hiding in a cardboard box and telling everyone that he’s a martian who can’t stand earth’s sunlight, is moved to give it a shot. Cusack takes the child home and forms a deep bond with him, at first making the mistake of trying to be friends before eventually realizing that parenting requires a different set of skills. The story’s first conflict is getting Cusack to convince the adoption board (with Richard Schiff once again playing the by-the-book asshole who just doesn’t get it) that he’s a fit parent, then goes further by resolving the divide between the two main characters after everyone else puts their concerns away. The film was deeply criticized upon release for the changes made to the true story of David Gerrold, which he chronicled in his book and adapted to the screen before his screenplay was rejected in favour of a version that changed his sexual orientation (to heterosexual) and invented a dead wife.  On principle, this criticism is valid, but in practice the film could at least soften that blow by being interesting and not so manipulative. The attempts to go beyond cliché are few and far between, featuring such rusty old chestnuts as a food fight (in movies there’s always someone else to clean up, I guess) and, rather than give the youngster (who is portrayed by Bobby Coleman) a discernible personality, Meyjes relies on little more than his big sad eyes and a scratchy voice.

Spirit of the Forest

David Rubin, 2008

This Spanish production was released in the U.S. with a few big names contributing voices, including Huston, Ron Perlman, Sean Astin and Giovanni Ribisi. Huston contributes hilarious vocals as a cruel, self-important grand lady who is thrilled when developers offer her a big pay-day to sell the land surrounding her house for the paving of a new highway. When the woodland creatures living in the woods learn of these plans, two gophers and a mouse get the kingdom of critters around them to mobilize and save their homes. The environmental message is well intentioned but something is lost in translation here, and the plotting is obscure when it isn’t just plain boring.  It doesn’t help that the very low quality computer animation is painful to look at. Your smallest fries will be properly distracted by it, but this isn’t an animated film whose qualities will go beyond that demographic.

 

When in Rome

Mark Steven Johnson, 2010

The success of The Devil Wears Prada inspired a number of copycat romantic comedies in which career-oriented starlets gracefully survive the harsh tutelage of a glamorous Wicked Stepmother boss, and none of them ever matched the complexity of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley. Kristin Scott Thomas is too incidental in the terrible Confessions of a Shopaholic and Huston is given too little to work with in this absolutely lifeless film (an exception is Tilda Swinton in Trainwreck, because her portrayal leans into its silliness beautifully). Rom-com conventions are handed out in tired, numerical order as Kristin Bell’s Guggenheim museum curator travels to Italy for her sister’s wedding while preparing a make-or-break exhibit that her boss (Huston) doesn’t believe she can pull off. While there, she meets a hunky sports journalist (since no job can be more coded as Straight Man without venturing into working-class territory) and sparks fly before she realizes why: in a fit of despondency, she jumps into a Roman fountain and takes out coins that, through a fit of poorly judged magical enchantment, make a group of men fall mystically in love with her. She returns to New York City and must avoid a lot of very insistent (problematic) suitors while trying to figure out if she should give into the feeling she has with a man she might be forcing into a feeling for her. The entire cast is superb, Huston is particularly smooth in a role that she never allows to become a caricature, but the face of every actor involved betrays the possibility that they only said yes for the cheque.

 

Secret of the Wings

Bobs Gannaway, Peggy Holmes, 2012

The world of Disney straight-to-video offshoots includes a series of films that take us to Tinkerbell’s life in Pixie Hollow, where we learn that winter and summer fairies live on opposite sides of the same world, never mixing thanks to the vulnerability of their wings to extremes of temperature. Tinkerbell, always the troublemaker, can’t help but be curious and makes a trip to the cold side of things where she discovers an incredible secret of her past that leads to change for the better. The tired Disney plot of the individual thinker who changes the Way Things Have Always Been Done combined with very low-grade computer animation makes for something that will make adults want to stick a fork in their eye, but the little ones will be enchanted. Huston provides the voice of the Faerie Queen, and was nominated for a Behind the Voice Actors Award

 

Arctic Dogs

Aaron Woodley, 2019
Of the many animated films and shows that appear on Huston’s resume, this is definitely not the worst, but don’t make time for it unless you think your kids will enjoy it. It takes place in the frozen town of Taigasville, where a sweet little Arctic fox (voiced by Jeremy Renner, for some reason) dreams of becoming a “top dog” like the Alpha Huskies who deliver the mail. He currently works in the mailroom doing a job of low-level repetition that is supervised by his tough, vaguely Russian-accented Caribou boss (Huston).  Their lives are all soon threatened by a vengeful walrus (John Cleese) who has built a doomsday machine that is causing the temperature to rise at alarming rates. The environmental message isn’t subtle and it doesn’t need to be, but the characters and jokes are mostly made of tired, familiar cliches and the action is lifeless.



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