The Stacks: When Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston Were the King and Queen of Cool
Immortalized in a comically murderous love affair in Prizzi’s Honor, Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston once epitomized our idea of Hollywood royalty.
When Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston finally appeared together onscreen in the 1985 black comedy Prizzi’s Honor—the second-to-last movie directed by her father, John—they brought years of subtext as one of Hollywood’s glam couples with them. They were not Taylor and Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—art imitating life at full volume—no, they were too cool for that. And it’s their sense of cool—sly, hip, sexy—that permeated their deadpan performances. Nicholson was already a legend of course, but it was Huston’s turn as disgraced woman, which earned her an Oscar nomination and stole the movie (and also kicked off an incredible string of performances including The Dead, The Grifters, and Enemies: A Love Story).
Brad Darrach, one of the smoothest celebrity profile writers we’ve ever seen (we’ve previously reprinted his profiles of Meryl Streep and Bobby Fischer), caught up with Nicholson and Huston just as Prizzi’s Honor came out and gives us a revealing look at two great actors in their prime. They were also a betwitching couple, and though they didn’t last—they so rarely do—it’s still easy to picture them together, isn’t it? The story was originally published in People magazine (July 1985), and reprinted here with permission from Darrach’s estate. Please enjoy this intimate look Hollywood sophistication. —Alex Belth
Like an arc lamp, the flashing “killer smile” illuminates every corner of a spacious suite in a lah-de-dah Manhattan hotel. The man of the moment has arrived for a photo session. Sturdy, feisty, natty as a tout in his dove gray double-breasted, Jack Nicholson strides through the room pumping hands and chatting up a storm. To look at him, a stranger would never guess that this radiant public figure is consumed by a private grief. He has just left the bedside of an uncle who is seriously ill, a man he has always loved like an older brother. But Anjelica Huston knows what he is feeling. Seated in a corner of the room, she gently disengages from an interview-in-progress as Jack moves toward her. Leaning back, she lifts her lips to his. The kiss is tender and it holds a little longer than discretion might dictate. “Hello, Toots,” Jack murmurs.
Lovers in real life for more than a dozen years, Jack and Anjelica are lovers on the screen for the first time in Prizzi’s Honor, a gloriously scathing satire that has wowed reviewers (“the nastiest, twistiest, most pleasurable movie in ages”). What pleases the pair most is that the picture’s critical and box-office success is a triumph for Anjelica’s father, John Huston, who directed such cinema classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, and who now, after a series of commercial failures (Wise Blood, Annie, Under the Volcano), stands reconfirmed, at 78, as one of America’s greatest moviemakers.
Prizzi’s Honor is also a triumph for Jack, who plays Charley Partanna, a dumb, deadly and hilarious mafioso who marries a freelance hit woman (Kathleen Turner) and then discovers that each has a contract to give the other a divorce, Italian-style. But Jack is clearly less excited about his own success than he is about Anjelica’s. After a five-year trudge through bit parts in bad pictures, she emerges in this film as an actress of poise and power. Cast as Maerose, a Mafia princess with a pythonic crush on Charley, she has created a grand grotesque—Lucrezia Borgia with a Brooklyn accent, lago in high heels. If she walks off with an Oscar—and both she and Jack should be prime candidates—John Huston will become the first director who ever guided both his father (Walter Huston was chosen in 1948 for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and his daughter to an Academy Award.
“Isn’t she terrific?” Jack fairly yodeled after the picture’s premiere. “There’s nothing in that character she didn’t get. She’s done something great, really great!” Jack’s delight in Anjelica’s acting, though shared by most reviewers, is doubtless tinged with deeper emotions. “She’s a dark, coiled spring of a woman with long flowing lines,” he rhapsodizes. “She’s got a mind and a literary sense of style, and you better believe she’s got imaginative energies. She’s absolutely unpredictable and she’s very beautiful. What is it that holds me to her? It’s love, I guess, and only love!”
The passion is mutual, though Anjelica is less lyrical in her expression of it. “Jack is a very rare and special being,” she says. “Most actors are vain and egotistical, but Jack is very sensible, not easily swayed. He’s at home with himself, and when you’re with him, you feel as if you’ve come home. You feel he’s family.
“Audiences feel this too,” she adds. “They feel he understands what they’re feeling, and that’s the essence of his power as a star. People who know him feel understood too. He has many, many friends and he wins their loyalty because he is so loyal. He takes care of his people.”
Friends observe Jack/Anjelica with fascination. “They’re more in love today than when they first met,” says producer Bob Evans. “He used to be a very big player—not even Warren Beatty has been so successful with women—but now that seems to have subsided. He’s never going to leave Anjelica. There’s no one else he really wants. He was a glittering vagrant, and she gave him the solid core he needed. Her breeding and culture have refined his life. The man is a diamond, and she’s given him a beautiful setting.”
John Foreman, the producer of Prizzi’s Honor, reports that “Jack does everything but rise when Anjelica comes into a room. She’s the center of his life, and he knows her value. If she were to say, ‘I want a gracious home,’ he’d get her one. If she said, ‘I want to be married,’ they’d be married. In fact they are married, in the best sense of the word. And they’re a lot nicer to each other than most married people I know. Jack’s fully involved with the rest of her family. He worships her father. He once said to me, looking straight into my eyes, ‘When John Huston dies, I’ll cry for the rest of my life.’”
All this being so, why do Jack and Anjelica live in separate houses? Why have they not, in fact, legally tied the knot? “I ask Anjelica to get married all the time,” Jack said in 1980. “Sometimes she turns me down, sometimes she says yes, and we don’t get around to it. I’m sure at some point—probably.” Now he gives an even more circuitous answer. “we’ve talked about marriage,” he says, “but it never became a critical issue. If I told everybody we’d been secretly married for three years, it wouldn’t change anything. What interests me most is the vitality of the relationship, and there’s more than enough of that. As for living apart, it’s just evolved out of the kind of people we are. Right now it seems to work better, and what the hell, she’s only two minutes away.”
Anjelica tightens up when questions about marriage and domicile are put to her. “We both believe in keeping our freedom,” she says carefully. “If you have a long relationship, as we’ve had, you go through changes. You want times together and times apart. We see each other when we want to, and at our best. I don’t like the word commitment. It has a gloomy sound. When I hear it, I see myself enduring a long dreary ritual. Understanding is a better word than commitment. Jack and I have an understanding.” To reach it, each traveled a torturous route of experience—much of it still painful to retrace. The real reasons for their fear of enclosure, friends say, must be patiently tweezed out of the deep past.
Jack was born on April 22, 1937, in Neptune, N.J., the illegitimate child of a 17-year-old girl named June Nicholson. But he never knew who his real parents were. To hush any possible scandal, Jack was presented as the child of his grandparents: a strong-minded woman who ran a beauty parlor in her living room and an alcoholic sign painter who lived in another part of Neptune. Jack grew up thinking his natural mother was his older sister, a glamorous figure who became a hoofer in Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Jack was about 40 and his real mother had been dead for years when he learned the truth from his aunt and her husband (the sick uncle Jack recently visited).
During his teens, insecure and gifted, Nicholson set himself up as a rebel and all-around wiseass. In the middle ’50s, when he turned up in Hollywood, the image served him well. Falling in with a group of similarly talented rebels who were wigging out on controlled substances and a new vision of cinema, Jack tried everything in the pharmacopoeia of the period, and when Easy Rider made him a star he became the front man of Hollywood’s hip revolution. By the time he met Anjelica he had married, fathered a child (Jennifer, now 21, by his first and only wife, actress Sandra Knight), divorced, and established a national reputation as an acid-tripping genius and bed-hopping jack of hearts. Hardly the fellow to instill a sense of security in a girl who was also the product of a traumatically broken home.
In every other sense, Anjelica’s background was the opposite of Jack’s. The younger of two children born to John Huston and his fourth wife, a spectacularly beautiful Balanchine ballerina née Enrica “Ricky” Soma, Anjelica grew up in Galway in a splendid Georgian mansion. “It was wonderful, untrampled country,” Anjelica remembers. “Enormous flowering rhododendron and miles and miles of gorse that smelled like butter. We romped through it all with the dogs and rode for hours on beautiful horses—my father kept 50 Thoroughbreds in his stables. Sometimes we waded in the river and caught eels, or played hide-and-seek in the formal gardens, or jumped and jumped on the trampoline in the barn, or crept about in the twilight looking for fairies. Oh, there was a lot of love and magic in St. Clerans! I can’t imagine why I ever chose to grow up.”
Much of the magic radiated from one of the great charmers of the century, Anjelica’s father. “I remember hugging his leg just above the knee,” she says, “and looking up at him and thinking how wonderful he was.” Mother was wonderful too, a vital young woman who “let fantasy run rampant.” Anjelica and her brother, Anthony, “lived for days on end as people we had made up.” They also wrote fantastic dramas and presented them “for the benefit of bemused adults”—among them Jean-Paul Sartre, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, and Pauline and Philippe de Rothschild.
But there was trouble in paradise. John spent months at a time on movie locations far from home, and wherever he went there were rumors that he was involved with yet another beautiful woman. Ricky suffered, and Anjelica sensed her pain. Her parents’ marriage collapsed when she was 7 or 8. And a few years later her mother moved to London. Like a wildflower, Anjelica wilted visibly in the chill of a British day school. Exuberance waned, self-doubt took over. To restore his daughter’s failing spirits, John gave her the lead in A Walk With Love and Death. “It was a terrible mistake,” he says now. “She was only 15. She wasn’t ready. I forced her to do it.”
When the picture failed, Anjelica’s confidence took another blow. And then, at 16, she got the worst shock of her life: Her mother was killed in a car crash in France. Devastated, Anjelica abandoned acting for a profession that made fewer demands on her lacerated emotions: modeling. Overnight she became the hottest thing on Kodachrome—in one issue Vogue devoted 30 pages to Avedon photographs of Anjelica in Ireland—and over the next five years she posed for the top fashion photographers: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Bob Richardson (who became her lover).
“I loved the clothes, the champagne, the attention,” she says. “Everything but my own looks. Day after day I shared a mirror with the world’s most beautiful women and stared at eyes that were bigger than mine, noses that were smaller. I cried and cried because I thought I was ugly, but now when I see those photographs, I think I looked absolutely wonderful!”
Early in 1973, during a visit to Los Angeles, Anjelica was taken to a party at Jack’s house. The host shot one glance and was riveted. “I saw cla-a-a-ss,” he says. She saw his eyes. “They were kind, and his whole face lit up when he smiled.” Within days they were passionately in love. Jack was amazed by the range of her temperament—“She’s got this great natural sophistication, but she could live in Alaska with a guy who hunts wolves and do just fine.” Anjelica was “engulfed,” says a friend, “by an older man who was just as charismatic as her father—and just as big a chaser.”
Breaking off her career, Anjelica for years devoted herself totally to Jack—who at times, feeling smothered, went bounding off after other ladies. Resolved not to relive her mother’s ordeal, Anjelica made sorties of her own—one of them with Ryan O’Neal. But always she and Jack came back together, and the relationship grew. “Every time I looked, she was more mature and more beautiful,” says Jack. With maturity came an increasing need for creative work, but it took a car crash in 1980 to jolt her into action. “I went through the windshield and broke my nose in four places and had a long time to look at my life. I decided it was time to get down to acting.”
Classes with a well-known West Coast teacher named Peggy Feury whetted her skills and rebuilt her confidence, and one small part led to another. Then last year, knocked out by her performance as “the most terrifying swordswoman in the universe” in Ice Pirates, John Foreman told her father she would make the perfect Maerose. A deal was struck, and then Anjelica went to work on Jack, who had balked at the script because he read it as a Cosa Nostra chronicle and failed to sense its satire.
He was also baffled by the character of Charley, who is everything Nicholson is not: one-track-minded and immaculately humorless. “The part really put Jack through the wringer,” says producer Foreman. “It forced him to give up everything the public has loved about him in a picture like Terms of Endearment—his smile, his charm, his wit, his way of letting you in on the character’s naughty secrets. It took great courage to do what Jack did.”
It also took a heap of hard work and constant support from Anjelica. Though they stayed at separate hotels during the Brooklyn shoot (“There were elements of the hit man in Jack at the time,” she says, “and I didn’t want to be around him too much”) they got together and talked for hours about Charley’s character. Then for days on end Jack hung out in Brooklyn bars and beaneries, picking up gestures and intonations. “I noticed that Italian men don’t like to move their upper lip,” he says, “so I stuffed Kleenex in there to immobilize that part of my face. I also scarfed a lot of pasta and tried for a two-ton Tony Galento walk, with my palms facing backward. Charley’s eyes I took from the eyes of my dog when he killed another dog.”
Anjelica had a special set of problems. “She had to overcome the fear that she would disappoint her father again,” says an actor she confided in, and she had to separate her private from her professional relationship with the two powerful males who had shaped her life. Anjelica coped superbly. She worked on basic motivations with an acting coach and consulted Jack on matters of technique.
“Maerose is a woman scorned,” she says, “but she has the womanly wisdom to know that the only way to keep something forever is to let it go. And when she does that, he becomes hers forever. I learned from Maerose that you have to allow the things you love to be free. I hope I never forget it.”
Once on the set, Anjelica and Jack readily transformed the bond between them into the bond between Maerose and Charley, and working with her father turned out to be a pleasure cruise. Delighted with what she was doing, he gave her almost no direction. “He pulled gently on the reins,” she says. “And before I knew it I was performing dressage.” Same with Jack: “He let us go, as we should all let our pets go.”
The production quickly turned into a lovefest. “Jack and John have always had a remarkable affinity,” Anjelica says. “A disturbing affinity.” Now their mutual admiration deepened, and so did John’s respect for Jack and Anjelica’s union. “There is a rare devotion between them,” he says. “You see it in life and you feel it in their scenes together. Twelve years! That’s longer than any of my five marriages lasted.”
Separate residence seems in fact to enhance rather than diminish Jack and Anjelica’s intimacy. He lives next door to Marlon Brando in a mountain hide-away that overhangs Beverly Hills, a Southern California-style stucco villa with the predictable pool and hot tub and a living room packed with important art (Rodin, Magritte, Alma Tadema). Anjelica has a separate bedroom down the hall from Jack’s, and she often has dinner at his house (he has a cook) and spends the night. When she stays at her own place, a small Spanish-style dwelling in a canyon in West Los Angeles, they are constantly on the phone to each other. “When I sleep at home,” she says, “I get up slowly and totter around and read the papers and feed the animals. I have a dog named Minnie, half Westy and half Lhasa, and seven goldfish in a fountain on the terrace. I used to have four cats, but one got run over and the coyotes ate the others. I love animals. I would love to have an elephant,” she adds, not entirely in jest, “but they’re so hard to transport.”
When he isn’t working, Nicholson stays up late and gets up late, usually after 11 a.m. Phone calls with friends and business partners—right now he’s trying to settle the personal and financial disputes that have delayed production of The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown—take up part of the afternoon, and some kind of heavy exercise occupies the rest. He swims, plays tennis, works out on his Nautilus machines, runs in the canyon near his house. Jack also likes to watch sports, especially the Los Angeles Lakers—for years he’s been their No. 1 fan. “Basketball seasons are like wines,” he says, “and every wine is different.” When he’s in town, he attends all home games. When he’s not or they’re not, he picks up the game on TV. Anjelica often watches too. Not long ago, while the Lakers were playing the Celtics, they had the following connubial conversation.
Anjelica (casually): “Jack, why is Larry Bird so pale? I wish he’d get a tan.”
Jack (indignantly): “Whaddya mean, why is Larry Bird so pale? Where does he live? Boston, right? What time of year is basketball season? Winter, right? What time of day does he do his job? At night, right? Now how in hell is he gonna get a tan? I like him just like he is, anyway.”
You can’t be any more married than that.