Anjelica Huston Recalls the Heartbreak of the Epidemic’s Early Days & How They Inspired Her to Take an Active Role
by Dann Dulin
When Anjelica Huston was born in Los Angeles, her father, director John Huston, was in Africa shooting the classic film, The African Queen. He received the news via cable on the set in the Belgian Congo with cast members Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. And so, one could appropriately call Anjelica, “Queen,” even more so because of her easy elegance and her foothold as third generation Hollywood royalty, behind her father, and her grandfather, actor Walter Huston. In her early life, Anjelica told her father, “Daddy, I want to be a nun.” Thank heaven she chose a stunning acting career instead.
As a child she imagined herself being Morticia Addams, the fantasy foreshadowing her later role portraying the slinky come-hither vamp in two celebrated Addams Family films (she was nominated for a Golden Globe for both of them). “I spent a lot of time in front of the bathroom mirror…I would pretend to be Morticia Addams. I was drawn to her,” recalls Anjelica in her absorbing newly released memoir, A Story Lately Told, a fascinating read about her unconventional childhood.
The book covers the first twenty years of Anjelica’s life that include her being homeschooled on an estate in Ireland, her parents’ breakup, which brought on a move to London during the sixties revolution, and the appalling death of her adored mother in a car crash. Anjelica moves to New York modeling for famous photographers where she begins a tumultuous relationship with one, twenty-three years her senior, who’s a bipolar schizophrenic. A Story Lately Told ends in the early seventies with her move to Los Angeles to pursue acting. (Part two of her memoir, Watch Me, will be released next fall.) Even though the memoir ends before even the glimmers of the AIDS epidemic, its portrait allows readers to see the events and the people who helped shape Anjelica’s fortitude, compassion, and determination—all traits that came in handy in the early days of AIDS when friends and professional associates took ill and she helped fight back against ignorance and stigma.
Her advocacy has been shielded from the spotlight, unlike her acting chops, which have garnered heaps of praise from critics and fans alike. Just like in the Addams Family movies, Ms. H. delivered a dark and wildly compelling performance in Prizzi’s Honor, earning an Oscar for her work in a film helmed by her father. This marked the first time in Academy history that three generations in one family won the award. Her other credits include The Grifters, The Royal Tenenbaums, Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery and Crimes and Misdemeanors, Ever After, The Witches, and, recently, an indie film, 50/50, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, playing Gordon-Levitt’s bossy protective mother. (This was her first film following the death of her husband, the celebrated sculptor Robert Graham in 2008.) Most recently, Anjelica starred in TV’s Smash, playing the ballsy martini-tossing producer, Eileen Rand. Incidentally, she made her screen debut in Casino Royale, playing Deborah Kerr’s hands. Yes!
Anjelica has worked with some of the world’s most renowned directors, including her dad in 1969’s A Walk With Love and Death when she was sixteen. Following in her father’s footsteps, she directed several films, including the 1999 picture, Agnes Brown, which takes place in 1967 Dublin, Ireland.
Today though, we are at the edge of another continent and seated at a small white teak table on the outdoor deck of a Santa Monica hotel eatery, which hugs the Pacific Ocean. Anjelica, in her distinctive demure voice, is reminiscing about her modeling days in New York during the 1980s.
“People were becoming ill all around me. I was living in the fashion and art scene and in every single area of my friendships there was somebody who was sick. This disease overcame me,” stresses Anjelica wearily, looking strikingly dapper in a dazzling leopard silk blouse, black stretchy pants and cork wedgie sandals framing her crimson painted toenails. She is svelte and youthful. Crossing her legs she sums up, “Extraordinary wonderful people died, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Halston, Joe McDonald, Peter Lester, Antonio Lopez, Michael Bennett. It…was… a…war.”
Anjelica first confronted AIDS when her friend, Zoltan Rendessy, founder of the iconic Zoli Modeling Agency, fell ill in 1982. He and Anjelica would disco the night away in those days. “He became unwell and no doctor could figure out what it was,” she says. “First, they said it was stomach cancer. Then they thought it was tuberculosis. Finally, another doctor said it was psychological; all in his head.” She disapprovingly shakes her head, her glossy trademark locks gently flowing to and fro.
“Zoli couldn’t understand, because he was becoming terribly gaunt and developing brown marks on his body. Nobody knew what Kaposi’s sarcoma was at that point, and they’re telling him that this was a mental problem?!” blurts Angelica with a sarcastic smirk. “Shortly before Zoli died he was diagnosed with AIDS.” Pausing a moment, she looks at the rolling surf through the few scattered palm trees. “It was horror. Horror,” she repeats, as if she were speaking about a grisly murder. “Those days were such a shock. So many brilliant people were brought down at the height of their lives by this absolutely fearsome wave of horror.”
She continues. “Not only was it an unspeakably painful disease, but its victims were stigmatized. These people were tremendously ill and compromised, yet they were being rebuked and criticized for their lifestyle,” she states with urgency, her face dropping in disgust. “That I found particularly odious, that people could use this disease as a way of denigrating the gay population. It was vile.”
Suddenly, a waiter appears and places silverware on our table in preparation for lunch. Anjelica smiles at the server and leans back into the chair to give him room. Known for playing witches, hard women, and matriarchs, in person Anjelica is shy and humble, though endearing and straightforward. In her company, I perceive an aura of Cleopatra and Maria von Trapp. She possesses a commanding, sultry, and poised presence, coupled with a genuine wholesomeness.
Witnessing so many deaths within her circle of friends was deeply hurtful for Anjelica, yet she took comfort in her beliefs. Moreover, the experience inspired her activism. “I have a feeling that something nice happens to us when we die. Not because I necessarily believe in heaven, but I believe in some glorious transition. I think that when we die there’s something of a pleasurable sensation, something evolutionary,” she remarks, interlacing her hands.”
After her move to Los Angeles, Anjelica began working with amfAR and Project Angel Food. This was not her first foray into activism. At thirteen she marched against the Viet Nam war in London’s Trafalgar Square. (Anjelica also has a vested interest in human rights, PETA, U.S. Campaign for Burma, diabetes, and she’s made PSAs on education, the environment, HIV/AIDS, and other causes.) “I never thought that war was the answer on any level. I never will. I’ll never espouse it as an option,” she declares fiercely. “The AIDS war is a tactile one for me.” The would-be Juliet—her father nixed her desire to audition for Franco Zeffirelli for his 1968 film, Romeo and Juliet—ceases talking until a screeching jet passes overhead. “Early on when I was working with the AIDS community, there was a division in the ranks of the AIDS charities and the awareness groups. It seemed to me that the focus was lost there for a minute. We all needed to work in the same direction. I didn’t care who I worked with,” she faintly chuckles. “I was in all pockets.”
In the early nineties, Anjelica was asked to appear in the HBO miniseries, And The Band Played On, which chronicled the first days of the AIDS epidemic. Based on the best-selling book by Randy Shilts, the film revisits the turmoil within the scientific, medical, and political establishments. “People were devoting their service for a day or a few days,” notes Anjelica. With her on the set was a dear friend, her long time beloved hairdresser, Anthony Cortino, whom she had met on the set of Prizzi’s Honor several years earlier. “He was one of my favorite people on earth! He was adorable!” she enthuses, her arms out-stretched. “I called him ‘Mittoine,’ or ‘my Me Tee.’ We used to tickle each other on set when we were bored.” Anjelica lets out a gigantic gust of laughter, remembering her old friend.
Anjelica and Anthony became bosom buddies and he accompanied her on all her film shoots. In 1992, he styled Anjelica’s hair for her marriage to Robert Graham. “He basically did his mother’s hairdo and I couldn’t say…” She’s laughing so much that she barely gets it out. “I couldn’t say, ‘Mittoine, please. Take at least some of the roses out of that thing you put in my hair!’” the sophisticated former model exclaims. “He loved the forties and the fifties.” She adjusts her chair, and then gently fiddles with her gold hoop earrings. “You know, even at that point he was not doing very well.” Her fresh face is now drawn.
A year before the wedding, Anjelica made the TV movie, Family Pictures, in Canada and, of course, Anthony was with her. “It became evident that he was very unwell. Like many of my other friends, he too, was becoming gaunt. I noticed that when we ordered these enormous meals he would maybe eat just an oyster. While we were filming, though, he maxed out his credit cards and just bought us all lavish gifts, like cashmere blankets and cut-glass perfume atomizers.
“We returned to Los Angeles and I was asked to do And The Band Played On. We shot in Long Beach and on the drive down to the set we didn’t say much to each other. But there it was, the elephant in the room,” she utters thoughtfully. “When we got to my trailer on the set, we walked in and he stumbled. Out of his bag fell prescription bottles and hundreds of pills scattered on the floor. We just looked at each other…and burst into tears. In a few months, Mittoine was dead….” Anjelica is silent and sullen, hands neatly folded in her lap.
“One of the last times I saw Anthony, was at a hospice in the [San Fernando] Valley. When I walked into the room there was this woman whose back was to me…,” she starts howling, recalling the incident, whipping her hands in the air, “and she was raising her T-shirt. She was showing him her tits! Mittoine was just laughing and laughing. I’d do anything to cheer him up,” she says as a footnote.
“I approached them—and it was Rosie O’Donnell! That’s when I fell in love with Rosie. She was so great.” Anjelica considers Anthony a hero, along with anyone else who has battled AIDS. “The ones who had to live with it and live with dignity, those are my heroes,” she quietly offers.
Anjelica has become a hero in the HIV/AIDS community. In fact, several years ago she and her husband, Robert, were honored by Project Angel Food for their compassion and devotion to the cause. Today, she continues her efforts with the HIV/AIDS community, but at times she’s leery of people’s attitudes. “Because the drug cocktail exists, it’s easy to think of AIDS as a thing of the past. A lot of people have become lackadaisical about it,” insists Anjelica, rolling up her sleeves since the L.A. sun is heating up the day. “It’s an incredible arrogance to think that you will not be infected, particularly if you take chances. We definitely need more PSAs. People need to have these facts drummed into them over and over again.” She comments on several friends who work in Africa—Priscilla Higham, a former journalist who’s founder and program director of African Solutions to African Problems (ASAP), and Nick Reding, a British actor who is founder and executive director of S.A.F.E. (Sponsored Arts For Education). ASAP addresses the needs of children affected by HIV/AIDS and S.A.F.E. educates about HIV prevention by performing theater on the street.
Anjelica is proud of their work and obviously wants to spotlight their organizations. She’s a team player. “AIDS is the most devastating thing to happen to us in our lifetime,” she emphasizes, with staccato cadence. “There is a huge lesson to be learned from this tragedy. A large phoenix has risen from the ashes to make us more tolerant. I don’t think we would be where we are today if it had not been for this crisis. It did arouse, in some way, the international conscience,” she says. “We’re all in the same bucket. We need to unite and to be compassionate.” She exhales, purses her understated pink lips and gazes briefly at the people playing volleyball in the sand. Anjelica turns to me and with her penetrating smoky big browns, concludes with a savvy spin: “This disease has defined us through the lens of our morality.”
Her list of favorites:
Film: Gone With the Wind. I could watch it end-to-end forever.
City: Paris or Rome. Probably Paris, though the only problem is that I’m not crazy about Parisians. (She laughs) …but their city is sure beautiful.
Moment: The surge of joy I feel when I’m in nature.
Band: Well…the Beatles…and the Rolling Stones. I’m split somewhere in the middle.
Singer: This year and last it has to be Adele. She speaks to the heart.
As you sail through your sixties, any words of wisdom about aging?
Stay smiling. Even if you don’t feel like it, put a smile on your face and soon it will become a habit. It’s a good way to start the morning. We don’t
When was the last time you cried?
Oh god. I didn’t cry yesterday [she scans her memory]. It must have been the day before.
What do you fear?
I don’t like flying. I fear situations that I don’t feel in control. I fear a death sentence. I do. But I have a feeling that something
In your next life what do you want to come back as?
Create a dinner party with people dead or alive. Who would be on your guest list?
Obviously Marie Antoinette. Napoleon. Hmm, well, you kind of have to throw Elizabeth Taylor in there just because she’d be a lot of fun in the group. I spent a couple of nights with her and it just wasn’t enough. Who else? I’d like to say Mother Teresa but I have a feeling that she was a little boring [she barely finishes the sentence before she belts out a hearty infectious laugh] . . . and some wonderful Russian. Ah, maybe Tolstoy. I’d love Tolstoy at my dinner table! Oh, I’ll tell you who: Gabriel Garcia Márquez! Also Martin Luther King…and John Kennedy…and John-John. I met him. He was the most
What drives you
Everything!—although it’s fantastic. I don’t twitter. I do like to text. I don’t really understand the need to express where you are, what you’re doing, and so on. Debra Messing [her co-star in Smash] loves it. How great, but not for me.
Of the many people that you have met, is there one who stands out the most?
Raul Julia. Talk about bravery! He was just a really fantastic spirit. He sang opera all the way to the end. Raul was very sick when we made Addams Family Values, and he never complained, never wavered. He was a consummate professional; a wonderful person. Then of course, Jack [Nicholson]. I love Jack and I can’t say that working with him was the easiest for me, because I had a lot of mishegas to get by, but obviously he was huge in my life. [They were romantically involved for over fifteen years.]
Who are you dying to meet?
[She ponders.] I’m always scared of meeting people that I’m dying to meet in case I’m disappointed. But…[she considers for several beats]…. No, I don’t think there really is anyone. I would think if there were someone I was dying to meet I would have tracked them down by now. But it’s best if some people are kept slightly out of reach, so you can go on idolizing them.
One word to describe herself.
Searching. I’m the Searcher.
She gives a brief reaction to these people who’ve crisscrossed her life
Aung San Suu Kyi: Brave.
Peter O’Toole: A god; an Apollo.
Stephen Spender: WOW! [She contemplates.] Giggling. I remember him giggling.
Mick Jagger: Sexy.
W.H. Auden: Carpet slippers. [She laughs]. I would see him in the mornings in London staying at Stephen Spender’s house and he would be drinking tea in his carpet slippers.
Ben Stiller: Brooding.
Darryl Zanuck: Big moustache.
John Steinbeck: Divine.
Marianne Faithful: Fallen angel; survivor
Jack Nicholson: Beloved friend.
Andy Warhol: Spoooooky.
Herb Ritts: Sweet man.
André Leon Talley: Exuberant.
Annette Bening: Smart actress.
Richard Avedon: Greatest fashion photographer in the world!
Elizabeth Taylor: High glamour.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Sweetheart.
John Hurt: Rascal.
Pat Ast: Woo! I love Patty. Larger than Life.
Gene Hackman: Scary.
Willy [James] Fox: Gorgeous.
Liza: An American Pierrette.
Dann Dulin interviewed Rita Moreno for the October cover story.