The script of "Prizzi's Honor," Anjelica Huston saw, was not quite getting to the heart of the thing. In the script the Mafia hit man Charley Partanna explains what happened between him and the Mafia granddaughter Maerose Prizzi: lumbering, earnest and suddenly desperately in love, Partanna tells his new lady friend that he and Maerose broke off their long engagement because Maerose caught him dancing too close to another woman and struck back by running off to Mexico with another man.
"I knew better," Huston says. "I knew exactly what he'd been up to."
She was passionate about the part. Maerose Prizzi, the grieving Brooklyn Sicilian exiled from the family for her public disgrace, was the strongest movie role Huston had ever been offered. She loved Maerose's elegance, her defended ferocity, her malevolent loyalty to the family that had thrown her out. She saw early on how she would shape the look of her Maerose: stark, deeply colored dresses with slashes of brilliant pink or reds; powerful wide-brimmed hats that brought mystery and dignity to the set of the head; fingernails so long that every movement of the hands must be languid and precise.
And Maerose's side of the argument-and-breakup story, Huston decided, had simply never been written into the script. In her own mind, as Huston settled fully into the spirit of the woman she was about to play, she invented it. "My part of the story was that I'd found him down in the men's room, do you know what I mean?"
Huston hesitates, groping for delicacy. "Having it off with that woman. My objectives were clear. That's what made me go to Mexico. I was maligned."
On March 24, after seven years of playing what might charitably be described as uninspiring television and movie parts, Anjelica Huston will drape herself in some elegant designer number and appear, probably borne by black limousine, at the Academy Awards. She has attended the awards before, on the arm of Jack Nicholson, who wins them now and then, but that is not why Huston has been invited this time. This time "Prizzi's Honor," the odd comedy that was released last summer to almost universal critical delight, has received eight Oscar nominations. There is one for John Huston, her father; he directed it. There is one for Nicholson, her companion-in-life; he starred in it. And there is one for Anjelica Huston, who so mesmerized as Maerose Prizzi that more than a few observers will be astonished if she does not walk away with the award for best supporting actress.
She knows this, of course. She is charming about it, imitating with wide eyes and sincere squeeze of the arm the well-wishers who give her terrible attacks of nerves by whispering, "You're gonna win."
She worries about what she might say after winning it, and about what she might say after not winning it, and about trying not to think about it at all, and about how just being nominated is honor itself, and so on. "Half of me feels that someone made an insane mistake," she says. "And the other half of me is terrified."
Huston is smoking a cigarette, considering Maerose. She is wearing straight-leg blue jeans, a gold-plated Moroccan belt, the tooled black suede boots Nicholson picked up during the filming of "The Border," and a shoulder-padded raw silk jacket, the color of pale mustard, with sleeves that she pushes with modelly impatience up her arms. "Great, isn't it?" she says, flapping a lapel with some pleasure. "I just got it."
She is angular and leggy as a Belmont yearling, and the cigarette was lifted from a woven silver case, but those are the only ghosts of Maerose left in the animated woman now stretched across her publicist's couch. Huston has been told before how wholly she startles now when she first walks in the door: the bangs, the straight dark hair swinging casually around her shoulders, the long friendly face that bears none of the Prizzi hauteur. One expects at least a shot of Brooklynese when Huston opens her mouth, but no: the only accent is a faintly British inflection on the word "been," which Huston pronounces "bean," in the manner of one who has been, or bean, groomed amid the English aristocracy.
"It's kind of a surprising position to find myself in, at age 34, as a new face, or suddenly to be garnering attention," she says. "Obviously, having grown up as my father's daughter, and having been associated with Jack for so long, it's not all that head-turning for me. I mean, I don't think it's going to change me enormously, or my life style, I hope, because I'm pretty private, and I'd like to keep it that way. But all of a sudden, you find yourself talking about yourself a lot."
Huston looks embarrassed and smiles quickly, as though to say, "It's okay, I don't mind talking to you, it's just -- "
"I think you have to take it all with a grain of salt," she says. "I'd like to find something that I felt was as strong as that part . . . Right now, it's sort of the feeling as though I am resting on very fragile laurels."
This is the tale of the child's beginnings: a ballerina with a Botticelli face gives birth in a London hospital ward. The word is telegraphed to messengers in the Belgian Congo, who commend it to paper and pass it to a Congolese runner, who bears it for three days through the bush to the place where the famous American is fending off dysentery and making his motion picture. The famous American reads the paper, places it without comment into one pocket and looks up to find Katharine Hepburn staring at him in wild exasperation.
"John," Katharine Hepburn cries. "For heaven's sake, what is it?"
Anjelica Huston entirely believes this account of her own beginnings; it is told in her father's autobiography as he recalls the filming of "The African Queen," and it has no more mythic a sound than the stories about the prizefighting, the Indian tiger hunt, the Cuban afternoons with Hemingway, the honorary commission with the Mexican cavalry and the day John Huston addressed various romantic interstar tensions on the "Night of the Iguana" set by handing each of the principals a gold-plated derringer. This is, after all, the sort of American figure about whom book jacket copy could cry, without a hint of self-mockery, a "Man's Man": "Five wives; many liaisons, some more memorable than the marriages," Huston wrote. "The hunting. The betting. The thoroughbreds. Painting, collecting, boxing. Writing, directing and acting in more than sixty pictures."
The pictures had titles that resonate decades later: "The Maltese Falcon," "Key Largo," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Misfits," "Reflections in a Golden Eye." He was 43 when he married Anjelica Huston's mother, Enrica Soma, a 19-year-old Balanchine-trained dancer whose elegant and wide-eyed face had once appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and if Anjelica grew up cowed by such luminous presences, she does not show it now. Her mother is dead and her father spends his days in a scarcely accessible compound on the Mexican coast, but she still talks about both of them as though they were in the next room, about to dazzle and embrace and shimmer off again.
"There was always sort of a grandeur to my father," Huston says. He had moved the family to Ireland, a country estate with servants and woods and a great manor house, and there between pictures Huston would arrive bearing gifts from extraordinary places. "Kimonos from Japan, and a gray parrot on his wrist from Africa," she says. "And precious stones from Mexico, and Navaho turquoise from when he made 'The Misfits.' "
It is not dreamy invention that seems to fill Huston's voice now, but affection. "He'd come in and the sun would come into the house," she says. "Things would become grand again, and the silver would sparkle . . . It would be these kind of wonderfully lavish homecomings, and then friends would come, and the friends were often brilliant. And the house would suddenly assume other colors, and the chandeliers would get turned on, and the champagne would pour . . . And there'd be New Year's Eve, and he'd put on his pink tails. And he was the most ravishing man I'd ever seen in my life. I'd sit there and watch him dress -- pink coat and white tie and tails -- he was magnificent."
He hosted the fox hunts, black top hat on his head, and Anjelica rode too, sidesaddle, the horses full gallop over stone walls that in memory seem to her impossibly high. "And then, come the end of the holiday, he'd go off to wherever, and we'd sort of cling to his legs. And he'd go away and we'd be depressed for the rest of the afternoon."
They lived, she says, in an odd kind of cloister, separated by class and miles of Irish farmland from the children who might have been their playmates. As a young child she was schooled at home, by tutors fluent in French, and as they reached the age of 10 she and her brother were enrolled in Catholic schools in the town. "I was very much the pet at the Sisters of Mercy," Huston says. "I was a day girl, and I didn't have to learn my catechism, because I wasn't Catholic . . . I would sometimes bring the girls from the convent school home to my house and give them things from my dollhouse. It was this terrible sort of elitist position."
She and her brother built tree houses, leaped on the trampoline in the barn, played with the children of the hired groom. There was no television. She remembers organizing large, elaborate dog shows on the grounds of the estate. She improvised costumed weddings -- Anjelica was generally the bride -- and there is a particularly vivid memory of the day they dressed as the seasons, with her mother in a white tulle dancing dress, like something from a Degas pastel, the tip of her nose colored blue for the faint gleam of winter snow.
"She was the most beautiful woman," Huston says. "She looked like a Madonna. She had big gray-blue eyes and dark hair, parted in the middle. Fine features -- a long neck. Also very Taurean, in that way, with both feet planted on the ground."
She was killed, in a car crash, when Anjelica Huston was 16. They were living in England by then -- Ricki and John Huston, who had occupied different houses even on the Irish estate, had formally separated some years earlier -- and Anjelica was broadsided by her mother's death.
"Although I loved both of my parents madly, my mother was my mainstay," she says. "It occurred to me all the time my father might die. He called himself 'Your old man,' and he already had the beginnings of emphysema when I was a quite early teen-ager. That something might happen to her -- it was something I never even considered. We used to have a running joke -- 'Will you leave this to me in your will?' I'd ask her this about her jewelry, as we'd go through her jewelry box. But it still never occurred to me that anything might happen to her, and so for shock value alone, it was absolutely devastating."
She could not bear entering her mother's house, and she wanted to leave London. She had started the beginnings of an acting career -- her father, in what he cheerfully agreed was an act of pure nepotism, had cast her as the female lead in his picture "A Walk With Love and Death" -- but the picture had not come off well, and Anjelica Huston, pressured to act and then dismissed by the critics, was dismayed by the entire experience. "It was just a matter of my being reluctant," she says. "And there's nothing worse than a reluctant actress."
The movie had not soured her entirely on acting, but when Huston finished a run as an Ophelia understudy in Hamlet, she accepted an offer to pose for a Vogue layout shot in Ireland. The photographer was Richard Avedon, who had known Huston's mother, and although Anjelica had some experience putting her interestingly sculpted body to work for English fashion photographers, she says the Huston who posed for Avedon was essentially an inexperienced teen-ager with no conviction at all that she was anything but gawky.
"I remember going for wig fittings at Alexandre, in Paris," Huston says, recalling the filming of "A Walk With Love and Death," "and they put, you know, five enormous hairpieces on my head -- and gazing into the mirror, and thinking how deeply ugly I was. Makeupless, with these long swatches of hair . . . And even when I was modeling, especially when I was doing photographs with more than one other girl, where I'd look down the line of faces and wonder how in hell I could be sitting with them, perfect little noses and big eyes that didn't need eye shadow. I had terrible complexes."
Studying the photographs -- and there were many of them now, including covers for Vogue and the Italian Harper's Bazaar -- was not entirely reassuring, she says. "I just hated the way I looked, and if they were nice, I'd think, 'Well, that was due to retouching -- or you know, some kind of wonderful mistake.' "
She was 21 years old, a modeling veteran and newly established in Los Angeles, when a friend of her stepmother's took her to a party at Jack Nicholson's house. He has discussed this meeting publicly more than once since then, and usually in terms that suggest good-sized bolts of lightning. She thought he was charming. "Somewhere along in the evening my stepmother's girlfriend asked me if I liked anyone in the room, because I'd been living in California and not met any man that I particularly liked, you know -- "
Huston chuckles, as though still humoring the anxious matchmaker. "So it had become kind of a mission on their part. So I admitted I liked Jack. And she went and told him immediately, which caused me terrible embarrassment. But I guess not for too long."
They were smitten, jointly. She accompanied him to Europe, where he acted and she modeled, and then, as the first grand gesture in a relationship that is now in its 12th year, she moved into his house.
Jack Nicholson, in cohabitory bliss. The moviegoing mind struggles to conceive it. Is our man not perhaps a little -- how shall we put it -- volatile for an extended romance of this sort?
Huston smiles sweetly. "It's absolutely counter to what I know of Jack, who right before I met him had had a very long relationship with Michelle Phillips, and before that with another girl that I know," she says. "Jack is a lot more domestic, I think, than a lot of people give him credit for. I think maybe a lot of the Lothario image, and the rake, and so forth -- I don't know. It's due to his eyebrows, and the fact that he's friends with Warren Beatty. And you know, he likes pretty girls."
Really, Huston says, Nicholson is a bit of a traditionalist. "He likes an even keel," she says. "And he likes pattern to his days. And he's not, in my experience, such a gadabout. Maybe when I'm not around." Quick grin. "When I'm with Jack, I'm the one who wants to go out disco dancing. He has to be persuaded."
It was not entirely easy, Huston says, living with a man whose celebrity was accelerating so rapidly -- particularly after she decided to return to acting. "There wasn't an enormous amount for me to do in terms of being a housewife or something, do you know what I mean?" she says. "His laundry was done. The flowers were on the table. I was feeling thwarted somehow -- like I was sort of caught up in -- "
She stops, groping for the right words. "Unable to cast off my shell," she says. "I was full of doubts and inhibitions about acting again . . . I didn't think I was taken seriously at all, on the go-sees that I did. I was filled with insecurity. And I remember saying to Jack, 'I don't know -- ' and he suggested something which may seem obvious to everyone, but came as a revelation to me, which was, 'Go to class.' "
Huston went to class. From midmorning until 8 or 9 every night, she worked with a Los Angeles acting teacher. She began auditioning with some seriousness. She found work as an extra, a few television parts, a lead in a PBS special. And she decided that although she still cared for Nicholson, she could no longer go on living with him.
"I'd never lived alone," Huston says. "I didn't actually know what I was like. I was a little bit at sea. I needed to draw away. I needed to know that when the phone rang, it rang for me. I needed to know who I saw in my life, as opposed to who we-all saw. And it was very good . . . you know, having one's key, to one's own house."
The place she bought was small and lovely and a 15-minute drive from Nicholson's house. Architectural Digest came out a few years ago and devoted six pages and many laudatory paragraphs to the pinks and warm beiges, the 19th-century tapestry and Italian mirror, the Egyptian artifacts and Moroccan chests and sculpted Afghani bust. A decorator helped Huston figure out how to lay out all the things and colors that made her happy, and she was delighted, she says.
"It was imperative for me just to find out how I liked my coffee in the morning," she says. She liked it dark brown, with sugar. It is not unimaginable that she and Nicholson will marry someday, Huston says; since the affair has now outlasted any of her father's marriages, the question somehow seems much less important than it might have when she was 8 years old and marrying hapless passers-by on her Irish front lawn. And although the two of them had worked together before -- Huston made a brief appearance in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- she says nothing in her acting life had quite paralleled the sheer pleasure of working simultaneously with her lover and her father. "I don't know whether it's because of his longevity as a filmmaker or his tremendous body of work, but he commands a certain respect," she says of John Huston. "And it kind of raises the level of performance."
The actors had initially read the script through in their own voices, she says, groping for a tone with which to carry it. It was not until John Huston brought in Julie Bovasso, who had played John Travolta's mother in "Saturday Night Fever," that they saw how it would be done: Bovasso, at Huston's request, read four pages of the script in thick, Sicilian Brooklynese.
"And my father looked as us delightedly and said, 'That's it, that's the voice of the movie,' " Huston says. "And we found ourselves -- " her face closes down, one side of her mouth lifting into the low, tough voice of Maerose Prizzi -- "talkin' like dis all da time."
She went to church in Brooklyn, haunted the shops and restaurants, listened with particular fascination to the transactions and telephone conversations of one woman who worked in a boutique. She and Nicholson talked on the telephone without breaking out of gangster voice; he sometimes carries echoes of his roles home with him while filming, she says, and she preferred not to share his quarters while the character within him happened to be a professional hit man.
Was she ever uneasy, playing opposite such exuberance of talent? "One's ideally not in competition," Huston says. "And if you are working with a great actor, one of the advantages is they give so much. You look at them, and it's like sitting down to a good dinner table. They provide you with a full character with which to respond to your full character."
There was one particularly complicated "Prizzi's Honor" shot, she says, which required the camera to follow Nicholson through the wedding scene as Huston emerges into the crowd. Maerose's face is supposed to be hard and harrowing; she has been trying to compose herself after her own father has called her a whore, and she must dissolve as she stands there nose to nose with Charley Partanna.
Anjelica Huston had to weep for two full days for this scene, working again and again to hold her emotions barely in check until she was physically close enough to Nicholson to let them go. It was enormously difficult, she says, but there was a spot on the set where she could gaze out at Jack Nicholson and John Huston at the same time, each of them perfectly framed by a decorative wedding trellis.
"When I felt myself getting shallow, I'd look from one to the other," she says. "I think it's an old actor's trick of how to cry -- just look at someone and say, 'I love you.' How much I love you. And it was something I used, just by being able to watch both of them on the set -- and to be able to hold on to my tears."