Anjelica Huston: What Doesn’t Kill You

LOST LOVE: Jack Nicholson and Angelica Houston were a couple for 17 years.
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LOST LOVE: Jack Nicholson and Angelica Houston were a couple for 17 years.

I have interviewed Anjelica Huston several times over the past 15 years and each meeting was in a different way moving.

I talked to her soon after she became a widow in 2008. Widowhood sat with her as an excruciating role. Robert Graham, the larger-than-life sculptor, died after a long illness and for a long time she lived in his giant studio, his huge black and white charcoals and imposing figures surrounding her like ghosts. They had been married for 16 years.

The first time we met was in a fish restaurant in West London. We were crying into our white wine when she talked about losing her father, the film director John Huston, a man for whom hellraiser was too meek a term.

He cast a long shadow and in this shadow she looked for other charismatic men – such as Jack Nicholson. Huston and Nicholson were a couple for 17 years.

From the outside they looked glamorous and travelled with the in crowd – Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones, Marlon Brando, models, motorbikes and far-flung film locations all made their relationship look ridiculously cool, but in actuality it was tortuously on-off.

When they eventually split for good, it was like a death in the family, she told me. I recall her saying she'd wake up and wonder what his breakfast choices would be, whether he would jump or dive into his pool, all the little routines she was no longer part of.

After that, we only spoke about him when I pushed her. So it surprised me that the second volume of her memoirs, Watch Me, is in many ways a love letter to Nicholson. As if in the process of writing the book she is no longer angry or even hurt, but for the first time understands him. "Jack is Jack," she says, with a wise smile.

We are curled up on her sofas in her new house in the Pacific Palisades, a chic district of Los Angeles. It has a bohemian feel; beautiful art on the walls, a cat snoozing on the chair, and her dog – a Mexican hairless – at her side. It is said that these dogs cry real tears, which may be what made the breed attractive to Huston, who is also not afraid to cry.

NEW LOVE: The actor was married to artist Robert Grahamfor 16 years after her split from Nicholson.
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NEW LOVE: The actor was married to artist Robert Grahamfor 16 years after her split from Nicholson.

I wonder why she was so kind to Nicholson. Has he read the book? "Yes," she says enthusiastically. "I think he liked it. I hope he did."

He comes over so much better than I expected him to, I tell her. She laughs a chortling laugh and says, "Yes, he did."

Did he make any suggestion to rewrite history? "No, not all. He didn't ask me to get rid of anything. But I didn't write the book in order to take anyone to task."

Nonetheless, she wrote the book with graphic emotional detail. It starts with her arrival in Los Angeles from New York, when she escaped the relationship with her first love, fashion photographer Bob Richardson. She says he had become jealous, needy and obsessed.

She was looking for lightness in her life when she arrived at her first Hollywood party at Nicholson's house. "I sort of arrived and didn't leave. I thought, this is the kind of man you could fall for."

And she did, big time.

She writes in the book of an incident at the start of their relationship: She went to a party with Nicholson and there she came across another girl she knew who was a model, who put a lampshade on her head as joke. But Huston observed tears flowing down the girl's cheeks.

Nicholson was catnip to women at the time and Huston was both thrilled and unsettled by the challenge. When she found out he had slept with the girl at the party after she left, Nicholson explained that the lampshade girl deserved "a mercy f***", something that devastated Huston at the time, made her suspicious and sent her through a flurry of looking through wallets, coat pockets and drawers for signs of other women. Over the years she found plenty, sometimes deciding simply to ignore the extra pots of cream or perfume that ended up in Nicholson's bathroom.

FAMILY TIME: Jack Nicholson with Anjelica Huston in 1974 in Los Angeles.
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FAMILY TIME: Jack Nicholson with Anjelica Huston in 1974 in Los Angeles.

Her mother must have known about her father's affairs, says Huston. Mostly she put up with it, or tried not to believe it, and Anjelica did the same. Now, she laughs about Nicholson almost self-mockingly, as if she wished she'd realised then what she knows now – that for Nicholson, infidelity was just like watching a Lakers game: inevitable and without much meaning.

"First of all I would take him to task," she says, "but that never helped. I felt like I was a moaner and I didn't want to be the moaning one who was always being jealous. And somehow that reaction kind of relegates you to being a boring person.

"You'll probably lose them a lot faster if you don't take them to task, so you leave them alone until you can't bear it. But I was never able to keep it a secret or hold on to my suspicions. I was immediately confrontational, then I'd sulk."

It seems as though it didn't occur to Nicholson that he was having such a bad effect, I say. "Not particularly, [but] I don't think he meant anything by it. But it was brutal," she laughs. "In some way [I knew] those were the conditions. But at the time, when one is in one's twenties, one is clueless. There you are in a long evening dress being sent home in the morning in a cab."

She's referring to one of her first dates with Nicholson, when she was turfed out in the morning with no ride home.

Does she think Nicholson would still send her home in an evening dress? "He probably would. And I probably would go. Jack has been in my life so long he is family. He just doesn't know how not to be Jack, and that can involve disappointing people who have expectations.

"When you're in your twenties, you're made of expectations, and when they're shattered you don't know how to behave. The fact is, if you react really outraged, you fear that you'll get dropped and feel even more terrible. But there's only a certain amount you can put up with before you become obnoxious in your own eyes, right? You can't humiliate yourself."

No matter how vulnerable, raw or humiliated Huston might have felt, she's never come over as undignified. Her brother Danny once told me, "All the men in Anjelica's life were extraordinary. It's hard having a monumental daddy and I understand the effect it had. If you fall, you stand up again… That is the Huston theme."

One of the saddest parts of Watch Me is when she is poised to start work on The Grifters (1990) and at the same time seeing doctors about her endometriosis so she could get pregnant. Nicholson, who was working on The Two Jakes, asked her out for dinner with unusual formality. As soon as they met, he announced with an unseemly grin, "Someone is gonna have a baby," meaning a blonde moon-faced girl he'd been seeing called Rebecca Broussard.

What seemed extraordinary at the time is that he said that he didn't want anything to change between him and Huston. But she couldn't see how there was room for two women when one was having his baby, so she decided to retire from it.

Soon after, she received a call from Nicholson's lawyer. They met and he started to grill her to see if she expected money from Nicholson, which had never occurred to her and was hugely insulting. The next morning she woke feeling as though her life was irretrievably altered, almost broken.

PROUD MOMENT: Houston won an Academy Award for her role in Prizzi's Honor.
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PROUD MOMENT: Houston won an Academy Award for her role in Prizzi's Honor.

She called Nicholson to tell him his lawyer was an idiot. A few days later, after another woman who'd had a liaison with Nicholson boasted (in Playboy) that he'd spanked her with a ping pong paddle during one romantic encounter, Huston set forth for his office at Paramount Studios, consumed with hurt and anger. She attacked Nicholson, savagely beating him about the head and shoulders. She recalls she went after him like a prize-fighter, and he let her do it – she hurt him, he took it, and then they laughed. But it was also tragic.

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"That was such a nice moment," says Huston now. "In the midst of all that sort of horror and hopelessness was the knowledge that he was allowing me to wail on him. In the long run maybe I was not meant to give him children."

The Christmas after they had broken up, Nicholson sent her a Christmas gift. It was a pearl and diamond bracelet that Frank Sinatra had once given to Ava Gardner. The card said, "These pearls from your swine. With happiest wishes for the holidays, Your Jack." That bit made her cry, says Huston, because despite it all, he still wanted to be her Jack.

I ask about the inclusion of this moment, in which Nicholson seems to be asking for forgiveness. Did it mean he was forgiven and she wanted him to know that? Is the book really a love story about him? "I hope so, yes."

There are many great things about Nicholson, according to Huston. She writes about him with acceptance and love. When she won her Oscar for playing the Mafia babe in Prizzi's Honor (1985), which was directed by her father and starred her lover, she recalls looking at them in the audience, brimming over with emotion for her. Both the men whose love she so badly craved.

Of the 17 years they were together, it wasn't always Nicholson who was unfaithful. Sometimes she would have a fling to make him jealous. Did that work? "I really don't know," she says.

GHOULISHLY GOOD: As Morticia Addams.

GHOULISHLY GOOD: As Morticia Addams.

One of those flings was with actor Ryan O'Neal. She looked at him as emotional balm to soothe her troubled relationship with Nicholson. "I wanted everything to be great. I wanted him to love me and be kind to me. At the same time, I was tied up with Jack so I was riding both sides of the rails."

O'Neal was ruggedly handsome with big boxer's mitts for hands and he started off devoted to her. He would drive her around in his magenta Rolls-Royce Corniche. At one point she announced to Nicholson she was leaving him for Ryan O'Neal. He didn't react; he just got on with his One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest premiere. Perhaps he didn't believe it.

Or Perhaps Nicholson knew that there was another side to O'Neal, the one who Huston says eventually tortured her with his jealously and aggression.

She writes in the book that one night O'Neal became agitated at a party, grabbing her by the hair and hitting her in the forehead. He beat her violently. It was not an isolated incident, yet, feeling alone, she found it hard to leave him. She didn't really have anyone to talk about it with.

How does she feel now? "I'm sort of sorry for Ryan. I was thinking about this and how it would look and what people would take from this story of Ryan. It's a sad story of people trying to fit in with each other's lives and how men become violent. I mean, why? What are men so angry about? Mothers feed their babies from their breasts and their sons grow up to be little men and they turn against women with the ferocity of wolves."

It's a question she doesn't have an answer for.

She went back to Nicholson, who never asked any questions about O'Neal. "He had to accept it, I guess." Just as she was expected to accept the pots of other women's creams stacking up in his bathroom.

But a baby with another woman was not just another pot of cream. Unbearable as it was, Huston moved on. She found good work and appreciation as an actress, notably so for her delicious portrayal of Morticia Addams in two Addams Family films.

And then she found love with Graham, who embodied the extremes she needed. He was reliable and exciting at the same time. When he died in 2008, her devastation was huge.

She wonders if he still is looking after her. If he might send a sign of some sort to say she may even find love again. "Eventually there might be someone out there who's nice, someone to have a laugh with. I don't want a deep, tortured, dark-night-of-the-soul relationship. I've had enough of those," she says, laughing.

There is good work to look forward to. She has a movie coming up with writer-director Bobby Miller called The Master Cleanse. ("It's very Psycho and I loved it.") And she is set to star in the Broadway play Love Letters, which is like the Vagina Monologues but with love instead of sex.

In her book she talks a lot about the old Hollywood: "Hollywood is a state of mind about glamour and possibility," she writes. It's not quite like that now, but she is still an interesting player. She called Watch Me an act of defiance: It was inspired by the moment Tony Richardson, who directed her in Hamlet when she was 17, called her over and said, "Poor little you. You're not going to do anything with your life." And she thought, "Watch me."

Watch Me by Anjelica Huston, $32.99, is published by Simon & Schuster.

 - Sunday Magazine

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