November 19, 2013
Guest: Anjelica Huston
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, actress Anjelica Huston, has written a memoir about her early life called "A Story Lately Told." She's best known for her performances in "Prizzi's Honor," "The Grifters," "The Addams Family," " The Royal Tenenbaums," and the TV series "Smash." Her book ends before her successful acting career. That part of her life will be in volume two, which is now in the works.
But her early years are worthy of a book. She's the daughter of John Huston, who directed nearly 50 films, including "The Maltese Falcon," "The African Queen," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Casino Royale" and "Prizzi's Honor," the film for which Anjelica won an Oscar.
Anjelica's mother, Ricki, gave up a promising career as a ballet dancer when she married John Huston. She was 18, he was 43. She was pregnant when they married. Fifteen months after their son Tony was born, Anjelica was born. John Huston moved the family to Ireland, where Anjelica grew up on an estate called St. Clarens.
Anjelica Huston, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from your book. In fact, why don't you read the beginning of chapter one.
ANJELICA HUSTON: Thank you, Terry. I was born at 6:29 p.m. on July 8, 1951, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. At 8 pounds, 13 ounces, I was a big, healthy baby. The news of my arrival was cabled promptly to the post office in the township of Butaleja in Western Uganda. Two days later, a barefoot runner bearing a telegram finally arrived at Murchison Falls, a waterfall on the Nile, deep in the heart of the Belgian Congo, where "The African Queen" was being filmed.
My father, John Marcellus Huston, was a director renowned for his adventurous style and audacious nature. Even though it was considered foolhardy, he'd persuaded not only Katherine Hepburn, an actress in her prime, but also Humphrey Bogart, who brought along his famously beautiful wife, the movie star Lauren Bacall, to share the hazardous journey.
My mother, heavily pregnant, had stayed behind in Los Angeles with my one-year-old brother, Tony. When the messenger handed the telegram to my father, he glanced at it, then put it in his pocket. Katie Hepburn exclaimed, for God sakes, John, what does it say, and dad replied: It's a girl. Her name is Anjelica.
GROSS: So Anjelica Huston, what's your reaction to that story of your birth? I mean, your father's making this classic film while you're born, which, you know, great for him, but he's not with your mother, and he's not with you.
HUSTON: That's true, but he was often not with my mother and often not with me, which didn't alter in any way my profound love for him and my feelings, my daughterly feelings towards him. That was what he did. He was an adventurer, and he lived in a grand style, and everything around him and everything he did was a grand gesture. So this was sort of typical of who he was.
GROSS: So your parents marry, your mother 18, your father in his 40s. Within about a year she gives birth to your brother Tony, and then 15 months after that she gives birth to you. Your father moves the family to Ireland. In reading this, I think your mother must have been so removed from her world. She's away from America, she's away from the people she knows, she's away from her work. She's not going to do ballet anymore, she's had two children, and after you were born she goes into this postpartum depression.
Do you think your mother resented that her life was so transformed in a way that wasn't necessarily the direction she wanted to head in? Like I don't know if in retrospect she really wanted to become a mother that young and to be leading the life that your father wanted her to have.
HUSTON: Yes, I think you have a good point there. I'm not sure whether or not she wanted to have my brother that soon, but that was what you did when you married. It wasn't really a conversation like it is these days. And I think ideally it must have seemed like a wonderful sort of glamorous union with my father. But of course he was not a very faithful person, and I think that must have been a big blow for her, knowing my mother as I did.
She was romantic and naive in a way. And I think that must have been a big shock to her.
GROSS: At some point your father tells you and your older brother Tony to come visit him. And the big surprise is he's showing you that he has a new baby boy, with of course a woman who's not your mother. By this time I guess they're living separately. And you write you looked at this new baby and you thought: I hate him.
And that baby is Danny Huston, who's turned out to be really a fine actor.
HUSTON: And the finest brother in the world.
GROSS: Oh really? Good. I'm glad to hear that.
GROSS: What did it mean to you to see this baby born from - you know, born with another woman?
HUSTON: Well, the other woman wasn't just another woman. The other woman and I had made - we were very friendly. I'd made friends with her a couple of years before at St. Clarens, and I loved her. Her name was Zoe Sallis. And she was beautiful, Indian, exotic. She had those Morticia Adams eyes. And my father called from Rome when he was making "The Bible" and told my mother that he wanted Tony, my brother, and I to go to Rome, that he wanted to tell us some news.
And I remember saying to my mother, I don't want to go to Rome, and she said why not, is it because of Zoe? And I said, Zoe? Why should that have to do with anything? Well, she didn't really reply, and Tony and I showed up in Rome and walked into the Grand Hotel, and my father clapped his hands together and said sit down, kids, I have some great news.
So we sat down, silent anticipation, and then he said you have a little brother. And I thought how is that possible, my mother wasn't pregnant. Anyway, then we were taken to see this baby, who was in an apartment building somewhere on the other side of town, and lo and behold, Zoe was the baby's mother. So I was very - I was very shocked by that.
And the baby was a toddler. He was crawling around on the floor on all fours, pretending to be a little dog. He was barking, and dad was patting him on the head and telling him what a good little dog he was. And I sat there in sort of horrified silence for a while, and then came time to say goodbye to the little dog. And my brother kissed him, and Danny kissed him back.
And then dad said to me, kiss Danny goodbye. And I looked at this baby with sort of unconcealed hatred. And Danny held up his right hand, his little tiny, fat, pudgy toddler's hand, like a little claw, and growled at me.
HUSTON: And I fell madly in love with him.
HUSTON: He was just the cutest thing ever. And he had clocked me. He knew exactly what I was - what I was about.
GROSS: Did you know before your mother did about this baby?
HUSTON: No, my mother knew but hadn't said anything. And when I went back to London, my mother was pregnant, and...
GROSS: With another man.
HUSTON: I had no idea. With another man's baby, yes. That became my sister Allegra.
GROSS: And you describe your mother saying to you, you had been having some conflicts with her at this point, and you describe her saying to you, like, can you make it a little bit easier on me, can't you see I'm seven months pregnant? And it was like, wow...
HUSTON: Yeah, and the fact that I hadn't sort of clocked that was pretty telling. I, obviously, you know, wasn't really seeing what was going on.
GROSS: How old were you then?
HUSTON: I was 12.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So, your mother gives birth to Allegra. You fall in love with Allegra immediately. Let's talk a little bit about your mother. It sounds like your mother was very beautiful. And what did you understand about the importance of beauty when you were growing up? Your mother was beautiful. Your father worked with - directed beautiful actresses. So, I mean, beauty had tangible value.
HUSTON: Yes, it did. And, yes, my mother was spectacularly beautiful, a very refined kind of beauty, not vulgar in any way. She looked like a Renaissance Madonna. She had very calm, big, gray eyes, very fine features. She was both earthy and delicate. I think her awareness of beauty, my father's involvement with it, yeah, it was. It was definitely an asset, and not just people's physical beauty, but the physical beauty of things, of objects, too.
GROSS: And you describe yourself as spending a lot of time looking at your face in the mirror. And you think it wasn't exactly vanity. It was something else. What were you looking for?
HUSTON: I was looking for the beauty. I was looking to see if it was there at all. And I think that really is a lot of what children look in the mirror, what that's about. It's not necessarily appreciating what you have. It's also looking for what you don't think you have. So it's a way of recognizing yourself or recognizing your potential, maybe.
GROSS: What did you see when you looked at yourself?
HUSTON: A rather plain little girl with brown hair and freckles, with hazel eyes and not particularly beautiful, but someone who was dreaming. I was pretty dreamy. But it wasn't really about feeling gorgeous or anything like that. It was about I wonder if I could make this into something.
GROSS: And what did you think you needed to do to make this into something?
HUSTON: Put a lot of makeup on it, to begin with.
GROSS: Well describe the makeup you wore. It sounds like quite a mask that you'd put on every day.
HUSTON: Yeah, the makeup, I couldn't wait for makeup. And I loved watching my mother putting on makeup and lipstick, and what mascara did. And, oh, I loved that transformation. And I liked all things feminine. I liked stockings and high heels, and I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to grow up really fast.
GROSS: And when you started to grow up, it sounds like your father was pretty uncomfortable. For example, he once accused you of doing the bumps. You didn't know what he meant, but you figured out he probably meant, like, dancing sensually with your hips. And you got really angry with him and said: You don't love me. And then he hit you hard across the face.
Reading that, it made me wonder, because he was so attracted to younger women, do you think he was especially scared that you were becoming sexual?
HUSTON: I think probably that had something to do with it, but I still think that he missed early days in Saint Clarens, the idea of having a wife and children happily ensconced in the country, where nothing would happen to us. And I think he sort of wanted to stop time. And there I was, getting provocative and wearing short skirts and lots of makeup and dancing provocatively.
GROSS: Maybe he was afraid, also, that you'd meet a man like he was.
GROSS: An older man who would fall in love with younger women, and actually, that did happen a little later. Yeah.
HUSTON: It did. That's exactly what happened.
GROSS: We'll get to that a little later. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anjelica Huston, and she's written the first of a two-part memoir called "A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anjelica Huston. She's written a memoir about her early years called "A Story Lately Told." Volume two of her memoirs is in the works.
So, we were talking about how after your father had found out that you were doing this very sensual dancing, and he slapped you, that you didn't want to be around him anymore. He scared you. But soon after that, he decided you should make your film debut in a movie he was directing, a film called "A Walk with Love and Death," which I think few people remember. It didn't do well.
GROSS: You didn't want to do it. Why didn't you want to be in his film?
HUSTON: Well, for a start, he was very critical of me, and I wasn't comfortable with that. And it seemed to me that he didn't want me to be who I was, and that was very difficult, that he didn't really like me and that...
GROSS: Did he not like you, or did you just think at that time he didn't like you?
HUSTON: No, I felt at that time that he didn't like me. He didn't like who I was. He didn't like the way I dressed. He didn't like the way I looked. He was very critical of all of that. And so my primary task at the time was to avoid him. When he came up with this idea for "A Walk with Love and Death," it was, I think, you know, with the best possible intent. He thought he was doing something very good for me.
I had told him that I wanted to be an actress. I'd made that abundantly clear to everyone. And so he contrived to make this happen. "A Walk with Love and Death" was the second picture in a three-picture deal that he was doing at Fox, and I think, to his way of thinking, it was a marvelous idea, to me, not so much. Plus which, Franco Zeffirelli had launched a school search for Juliet for "Romeo and Juliet."
And I'd seen his producer a couple of times, and I'd been told that I maybe, you know, I would have a chance for a callback with Zeffirelli when he came to town. I was pretty excited about that. And then my father wrote Zeffirelli a letter telling him that I would be working with him. That upset me.
And also, having read the script, I didn't feel that I'd be any good in this movie, really. It was the part of a 15th-century maiden who falls in love with a student who's looking for the sea. It was a rather lyrical piece. I wouldn't have said that, you know, there was much to sink one's teeth into. And the character was, I felt, a bit wet, and I don't think my father was particularly interested in hearing my criticisms on the script.
I was a 16-year-old girl who'd never acted before, really. Who was I to have these - to have these reservations? He was a great director, you know, and I think he thought I was a pipsqueak, and I probably was.
GROSS: There's a paragraph about this that I'd like you to read. It's on Page 170.
HUSTON: (Reading) I would have much preferred to work with Zeffirelli. The prospect of making a movie with dad, his directing me, surrounded by his regular crew - most of whom had known me since babyhood - would diminish my power to self-invent on my own terms. It was as important for me to present a new persona off-camera as it was to play an original character on film.
GROSS: I have to say, I really related to that. My background is, like, not at all like yours. My father certainly didn't direct me in movies. But I share that sense that to be yourself, to find out who you are, you have to do that process away from your parents, because to you, they're your daughter, and they know who their daughter is.
But there's a part of you that's totally independent of being the daughter, and that's somebody who is being created independent of that, or largely independent of that. And so I feel like I really understood how difficult it would be for you to express yourself as an artist in this role, with your father insisting that he knew who you really were and that you couldn't be yourself, or couldn't be your interpretation of the actress - of the character.
HUSTON: Exactly. And also, by the mere fact of all of these people who were his regular crew members, they also remembered me as John's daughter. So that would create a barrier for me to - in order to express myself as somebody else or something else.
GROSS: So, did that make you want to give up on acting?
HUSTON: No, it didn't. It made me want to act for somebody else.
GROSS: But what you actually did was go into modeling instead.
HUSTON: Well, I did that because I didn't know that I'd be getting a lot of offers pursuant to some very, shall we say, raw criticisms and reviews. So having been invited by Dick Avedon to go to Ireland for, you know, a nice layout for Vogue, and also being invited by other magazines to model for them, it was a sort of - it was a good way to approach what I wanted to do again without the kind of criticism inherent in making movies. So it worked well for me.
GROSS: Anjelica Huston will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "A Story Lately Told." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actress Anjelica Huston, who is best known for her roles in "The Grifters," "The Addams Family," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and the TV series "Smash." She won an Oscar for her 1985 film "Prizzi's Honor," which was directed by her father, John Huston, who directed nearly 50 films, including "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Her mother, Ricki, married Huston when she was 18 and he was 43. They moved to an estate in Ireland where Anjelica grew up. After her parents separated, she moved with her mother to London. Her new memoir is called "A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York." Volume two of her memoirs is in the works.
I want to get back to your mother. When you were a teenager, you were going through some difficult times with her, as you we becoming more independent and more sexual. And she finally confronted you and said look, you know, like we really need to work this out and you started to work that out and become really close again. And then she was killed in a car accident. And she was 39 and you were how old?
HUSTON: I was 17.
GROSS: You tell an amazing story about this dream that you had. You were dreaming and you were awakened from the dream with the news told to you about your mother's accident. Would you describe the dream you were having?
HUSTON: I was having a dream that my spine was being pulled out of my body. As if someone had their hand around my coccyx bone and was extracting my spine. And as I was dreaming this, I was shaken awake, and it was part - became part of the dream. And when I woke up I saw someone who used to be a tutor of mine who is also a very good friend of my mother's, but I didn't know why he was sitting on my bed and shaking me awake. And before I was fully awake, he said your mother's dead. She was killed in a car crash. And so the news came to me before I was even fully conscious.
GROSS: You later came upon some of your mother's possessions. And within them was a dream that she had written down, a dream from the night before she was killed. Would you mind telling us that dream?
HUSTON: That dream was that she was in a structure and it was maybe a hotel and she was maybe in bed and there was an earthquake or there was a - the hotel crumbled and there was stuff like metal and glass, but that she climbed to a place atop the ruins. And the last lines are, you know, there's a feeling of peace, the kind of calm after a storm. And the person that she was traveling with gave me the dream. And I'm forever grateful for that because that's how I think of my mother as, you know, climbing to a place atop all of that earthly pain.
GROSS: You write that you always thought it was your father whose life was in jeopardy because of his age and his bad health. And so it was just unimaginable to you that your mother would die first.
HUSTON: Yeah. Never occurred to me. And we used have a joke, you know, if I liked something of hers I'd say, would you give that to me in your will and, you know, we'd laugh about it. But it never occurred to me that my mother - anything would happen to my mother.
GROSS: Did she have a will?
GROSS: Did that make it even harder?
GROSS: And you - yeah.
HUSTON: Yeah. But I ran away pretty soon. I didn't stick around to hear any wills being read or - and at first my reaction was I don't want anything. I don't want anything. I just want my mum back.
GROSS: So you went to New York after that.
GROSS: And that's when you really become a model.
GROSS: You write that you felt powerful in front of the camera modeling. But you hadn't felt powerful in front of the camera acting. Now that's in part because your father was directing and you didn't like the role and you didn't like the dialogue. But what was it that made you feel powerful in front of the camera when you are modeling? Because also, you didn't think you were beautiful.
HUSTON: Well, no, but I could be convinced.
HUSTON: And that was one of, you know, certainly Dick Avedon's major assets was the fact that he could certainly make you feel that way. And I think it was his, yes, it was his sort of metier to make women bloom in front of his camera. So with music and lighting and beautiful clothes and Dick Avedon telling you you look good, life was - that was pretty nice.
GROSS: Wasn't it Avedon who had earlier told your mother that you'd never be a model because your shoulders were too wide?
HUSTON: Yes. He told that to my mother and I was like oh God, nose too big maybe, but now shoulders too wide?
GROSS: I bet you'd never thought about the width of your shoulders before.
HUSTON: There were a lot of problems.
HUSTON: Never. Never. Never occurred to me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anjelica Huston. And she's written a memoir about the first part of her life. And it's called "A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anjelica Huston and her new memoir is called "A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York." And it's volume one, volume two is in the works.
So one of the photographers who photographed you was Bob Richardson and you and he became lovers for about four years. You had just turned 18 when you started your relationship, he was 42. That so much reminded me of your parents.
GROSS: When your mother was 18 and your father was in his 40's. Did you think about that when you started the relationship that you were age wise to locating what they'd had?
HUSTON: I don't think it was the first thing to occur to me. It was kind of - I guess I thought it was a bit of a coincidence, but I don't remember spending a lot of time thinking oh, wow, this is a repeat performance.
GROSS: And in retrospect?
HUSTON: I think I was looking for a parent, for a parent who approved.
GROSS: Oh, as opposed to your father who didn't?
HUSTON: Yeah, and my mother who was gone.
HUSTON: So I think that was largely my attraction to Bob. And also he was very seductive. And I loved working for him. I always loved working for his camera. He was incredibly intuitive, very sensitive. He seemed to understand everything. He seemed to know me.
GROSS: You write he was also controlling and sometimes abusive. And you...
HUSTON: He was - yeah.
GROSS: You write: I had mistaken Bob's need for dominance and control as love.
HUSTON: Well, yes, and he was also schizophrenic, which is...
GROSS: Which you didn't know at the time.
HUSTON: No. I had no idea. I had no idea and I didn't even really know what schizophrenia was. I didn't know that there were moments where he was completely out of control.
HUSTON: But I was to learn that.
GROSS: And you also didn't know he had been diagnosed as bipolar, and he was also bisexual.
HUSTON: Right. Which I never knew.
GROSS: How did you find that out?
HUSTON: Much later I read it. I read it in an article about Bob that was published in The New Yorker in the, I think late '80s. I had no idea. I was fairly innocent.
GROSS: Well, another thing is he wanted you to have a baby and you were still very young. You had trouble conceiving. But you say you also knew you weren't ready. And also that a baby would tie him to you in a way you weren't sure you wanted to be tied to him. I mean you were with him when you were 18 to 22 years old.
GROSS: But it made me think again how if you'd had a baby it would also be repeating your parents' experiences, where your mother married your father when she was 18 and he was in his 40's, had two children right away and basically said goodbye to the possibility of a career, certainly as a ballet dancer. Did you think about your mother at that age when Bob Richardson had been wanting to - you to have a baby?
HUSTON: Again, maybe very shallow of me, but I wasn't really thinking about my parents' patterns. I was thinking about what I wanted, where I wanted to be, what I was up to. And largely that had to do with avoiding my father, who I dreaded, you know, a meeting, a future meeting between he and Bob. I knew instinctively or I felt instinctively that they wouldn't be fond of each other. I think my instinct about my father's reaction to Bob would be that he would think that Bob was a sissy.
HUSTON: Because he was very sensitive. He was an emotional tumult. He was very up and down. He was not the kind of huntin', fishin', shootin' guy that my father would've approved of. Bob by his nature was a fashion photographer. I mean I think my father would've had contempt for that.
GROSS: What made you realize you needed to leave, like for your own, you know, mental health, you needed to leave?
HUSTON: Well, we had an episode at the Chelsea Hotel one day after about four days of his turning his face to the wall. And I went into the bathroom and pulled a razor blade across my wrist and it occurred to me that if I stayed with him I'd die at some point, that I wouldn't survive him. That, you know, being with somebody like that could push me over the edge.
GROSS: So when you left, where did you go to? What was the next step?
HUSTON: The next step was California. And Bob and I had - my father had come to visit us. Finally, after several years he and Bob finally met and he invited us to go on the fishing trip in Cabo San Lucas and it was absolutely horrible. My father had just gotten married again and we went out on this little boat in the middle of the Sea of Cortez and, you know, slaughter of these beautiful fishes began with a sailfish that was kind of macheted against the side of the boat. And it was a long, hot day and I got a terrible suntan. We get back to finally - oh yeah, the boat caught fire at one point and we had to be rescued.
HUSTON: And we got back to the hotel and we went - we sort of went over to the bar and Dad said what would you like to drink, honey, to me. And I said oh, I'd like a strawberry daiquiri. And Bob said no, you want a banana daiquiri.
HUSTON: And I was caught between these two guys. I thought, oh dear, this is really - this is hellish. Anyway, the trip progressed in the most awful way and ultimately, Bob and I parted at LAX. He held out his hand to shake mine and I refused it and that was it. I walked away. Put my hands in my pockets and walked away.
GROSS: Did it make you think like what you wanted different from the next relationship?
HUSTON: Yeah. I wanted laughs.
HUSTON: I wanted a good time. I wanted to go out dancing and see people and have a social life and have friends and that's exactly what happened.
GROSS: So we're going to have to wait till volume two to find out more about your acting career. But just tell us a little bit about that transformation of leaving modeling and becoming an actress.
HUSTON: When I was first in Los Angeles, I thought wow, you know, I'm not going to...
GROSS: ...and becoming an actress.
HUSTON: Well, when I was first in Los Angeles I thought, wow, you know, I'm not going to work here. I'm not the kind of model that they look for in Los Angeles. I'm not going to - they're not going to use me to sell hair products or toothpaste. And around that first year that I met Jack Nicholson and we started to go out together, I also met Elia Kazan who was directing a movie called "The Last Tycoon," which was being produced by Sam Spiegel, my dad's old producer from "African Queen," as it happened. And I really - I wanted to try out for that role. And I didn't get the role. Ingrid Boulting, who was also a model at the time, a contemporary of mine, got the role in "The Last Tycoon." I got the role of the wrong girl and I had a couple of scenes with Bobby DeNiro and I got the bug again.
GROSS: And again, we'll have to wait till volume two to hear more, but I just think it's so great that your father, who kind of scared you away from acting because it was such a really bad experience and you got such bad reviews...
GROSS: ...you know, he also kind of, you know, directs you in the film that really made you famous, "Prizzi's Honor." You won an Oscar for that. He won an Oscar for that.
HUSTON: He didn't, actually.
GROSS: But the film did.
HUSTON: That was one of the...
GROSS: Was it the film that did?
HUSTON: No. The film didn't. "Out of Africa" won that year.
GROSS: Oh. Oh, oh.
HUSTON: Yeah. No, I was the only one to win an Oscar and felt a bit lonely about it. But oh, well.
GROSS: Oh, yes. Worse things have happened.
HUSTON: Yes, they have.
GROSS: But it has this beautiful symmetry, you know what I mean, that your father who made it so hard for you at the beginning also kind of, you know, gives you the vehicle that allows you to show what you can do.
HUSTON: It's so true. And also, you know, vis a vis my father and my reaction to him and so forth, he was tough on everybody, and particularly as a director. He was no pushover. And I think I personalized everything, particularly at that age. I thought it was all about me. He really had it in for me. But I saw him get tough on other people too.
And although that doesn't really diminish the affect that it has on one when one's talent or one's behavior is called into question, at the same time there was something vaguely comforting about knowing that I wasn't the only one to suffer criticism.
GROSS: You know, part of your coming of age memoir is about you not feeling power and in your acting career you've played such powerful women. I mean, you know, in "Prizzi's Honor," in "The Grifters," in, you know, most recently in "Smash." What changed, do you think? Like, if you have a type onscreen, it's power.
HUSTON: Well, thank you. I think - hmm. How does that come about? I think probably because I'm quite imposing looking. Those big shoulders were going to be a hindrance to me somehow. You can't really play a shrinking violet with shoulders like mine.
HUSTON: So maybe that's what it is. And I am powerful when I want to be. I'm, I guess, a bit accident-prone. But I've had a lot of various and interesting experiences in my life. Some great, some not so great, but I don't think I could be accused of not living - of not living it, really. I'm apt to, you know, take big bites.
GROSS: Anjelica Huston, it's really been so great to talk with you. I hope we get to talk again when volume two comes out.
HUSTON: Thank you, Terry. This has been a pleasure.
GROSS: Thank you so much, and be well.
HUSTON: Thank you. You too.
GROSS: Anjelica Huston's new memoir is called "A Story Lately Told." You can read the introduction on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, John Powers reviews two new films he says are terrific. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: We're in the middle of the season when Hollywood rolls out its big awards contenders. This can make it hard for good foreign films and documentaries to get attention. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says there are two of these you should try to see: Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty," which is Italy's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Shaul Schwarz's "Narco Cultura," a documentary about the drug war in Mexico and its influence on a popular musical form known as narcocorrido, songs that glorify drug traffickers.
John says that seeing the movies side by side got him remembering a line he'd read in college.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," William Blake served up one of those mind-bending proverbs he's known for: The road of excess leads, he wrote, to the palace of wisdom. I thought about this line as I watched two terrific new movies that put Blake's words to the test.
Paolo Sorrentino's thrillingly good "The Great Beauty" tackles the idea head-on. It's an excessive film about excess. Sorrentino doesn't merely aim to update one of the most famous movies of all time - Fellini's portrait of decadent Rome, "La Dolce Vita" - he intends to better it. When we first meet the narrator-hero, Jep Gambardella, he's hosting a party in his apartment overlooking the Coliseum, a techno-thumping bacchanalia so hallucinatory it's assaultive.
Brilliantly played by the great, serpent-eyed actor Toni Servillo, Jep is a witty, jaded journalist who spends his time observing, hanging out with and occasionally bedding Rome's vulgar, deeply corrupted elite - rich businessmen and their neurotic wives, phony performance artists and curdled aristocrats.
Yet even as he haunts fashionable circles, Jep is haunted by what he's lost: the fire that burned inside him as a young novelist not yet tainted by la dolce vita, the good life. Hoping to rekindle it, he wanders Rome, encountering everyone from a soulful stripper to a genius little girl painter to a celebrated old nun whose life is as self-denying as Jep's is pleasurable.
At first, "The Great Beauty" plays like an enjoyably exuberant satire of modern Rome. Yet slowly, grandeur starts shining through the decadence. Sorrentino offers the most ravishing footage of Rome I've ever seen. He seems to have had free run of every park and palazzo, and the city's glory puts into perspective the shallowness within it.
Scenes that start off satirical, like the one with the nun, wind up containing a vision of transcendence. By film's end, the road of excess has led Jep to a vision of life's great beauty and perhaps his own spiritual resurrection. Now, it would be easy to write off Jep's whole story as a case of first-world problems. I wouldn't; the movie's about more than that.
Still, Jep's troubles do seem mighty well-upholstered next to the raw wounds in "Narco Cultura," a disturbing verite documentary about the Mexican drug war. It was made by Shaul Schwarz, an Israeli war photographer who spent several years chronicling its devastation.
"Narco Cultura" takes us inside - and juxtaposes - two very different cultures. The first is Ciudad Juarez. Schwarz shows what it means for a city to be the murder capital of the world, with a murder rate 30 times higher than Los Angeles. We see body parts on the streets, blood washed into gutters, the victims' terrified neighbors.
And we follow Richi Soto, an honest CSI cop whose job it is to try to solve all these murders - a job he must conduct wearing a mask because so many of his colleagues are getting murdered. Meanwhile, in the safety of L.A., we meet Edgar Quintero, an amiable musician and doting father whose songs are part of the narcocorrido boom, a movement devoted to glorifying drug lords and celebrating the melodramatic glamour of the drug-dealing life.
Many of these songs are commissioned by the gangsters themselves, but it's bigger than that. Like a jauntier, more brutal gangster rap, Quintero's songs pack nightclubs across America and Mexico with young folks singing merrily along to bouncy tunes about AK-47s and beheadings. Tellingly, the L.A.-based narcocorrido entrepreneurs don't live such atrocities firsthand. Here one of Quintero's musical buddies explains how they get their material from the Internet.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NARCO CULTURA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Usually all the information we get about Mexico is a narco blog, delnarco.com. You could see people, like, with their guts coming out from their stomach, their heads blown off, all real things, you know? That's how we get our ideas. That's how we make our songs, you know. And everything is saying about, you know, (speaking in foreign language), the police officers killed.
POWERS: At first, I feared that Schwarz was doing something worthy but obvious: showing how narcocorrido songs and movies make people rich by falsifying the horrific reality of the drug biz. But gradually, you realize that things aren't so simple. Sure, narcocorrido culture turns drug violence into a show, but there's also something merely theatrical about what the cops in Juarez are doing, too.
Soto is an honorable man, but he and other local police don't really investigate 97 percent of the murders. To even talk about them would get them killed. Small wonder that so many powerless young Mexicans and Mexican-Americans don't trust the system, but get seduced by narco-culture's vision of wealth and power and impunity. Heck, even when they're killed, drug lords get to dwell in self-aggrandizing tombs protected by bulletproof glass.
If "The Great Beauty" ends with ecstatic hopes of rebirth, "Narco Cultura" ends in futility and despair. Forget about palaces of wisdom. In this world, the road of excess leads straight to the cemetery.
GROSS: John Powers writes about TV and film for Vogue and Vogue.com.
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