As the saying goes, style runs in the family. In some cases, talent runs in the family, too. And there are those rare times when talent and style go together. And because here on Classiq we like to talk about films all day, every day, let’s turn our attention to my two favourite tribes in the film world.
I love the idea of cinema royalty. A family of talented directors/writers/actors stretching on at least two generations, who achieved greatness on screen. But I believe it was the real life foundations of those I talk about today that paved the way towards attempting to achieve perfection in their profession. Personal bearing and dressing well are part of that foundation. That said, I am going to mostly resume my writing to their lives and work, and let the images do most of the style talk.
“If there’s one thing I can say about my family, it’s they are genuinely who they are and are unapologetic about that. And they have a kind of ferocious love of life,” said Anjelica Huston in an interview. If you have read her memoir, this is exactly what her storytelling reflects. She shares straightforwardly who she is with a fair lack of awareness that her life growing up wasn’t like almost anyone else’s. She may indeed have had a privileged start in life, but she didn’t take this for granted and had to fight her way up. There was a long and rough journey from an aspiring, insecure actress in her twenties, to the reassuring one that she is now – Watch Me, the name of the second part of Anjelica’s autobiography, is, in fact, a dare: it comes from a story in the book, where somebody tells her that she is never going to do anything with herself. It must have been very satisfying, and rightfully so, for the one often referred to as John Huston’s daughter and Jack Nicholson’s lover at that time, to win the Oscar for best supporting actress for Prizzi’s Honour, the only one of the total number of eight the movie was nominated for, including Nicholson for best actor and John Huston for directing.
I’d like to continue to refer to the first part of the Anjelica Huston’s memoir, A Story Lately Told, because her irreverence, unconventional beauty, wit and sensitivity are reflected so well in her writing style. Her storytelling is charming in a quirky kind of way, and comes from a real and honest heart, from someone who has always shown true grit and never dwelled on her problems. And I also think the book is a father-daughter story: whether when describing how the house would come alive whenever John Huston was there or any other mention of their many a time turbulent relationship, those depictions of her father often seem to transcend the rest.
The son of the noted stage and screen actor Walter Huston, whom he directed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which both father and son won the Academy Award for supporting role and directing/screenwriting, respectively, John Huston remains one of the most intellingent and influential filmmakers in history. His creative output was impressive. He became an expert sportsman after he had spent much of his childhood as an invalid because he suffered from a weak heart. He did not finish high school, but he was a man of true genius. Playwright, stage and screen actor, director of plays on Broadway and an opera at La Scala, autobiographer and political activist who crusaded against McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts in Hollywood, discerning collector of art and connoisseur of literature, food and wine.
But, of course, this eccentric rebel of epic proportions reigned supreme as screenwriter (including for films not directed by him, like High Sierra, Jezebel, The Stranger and The Killers, for which he compressed Hemingway’s story to about 12 minutes and brilliantly used it as the jumping-off point for the invented backstory, told in flashback, and turned by Robert Siodmak into a landmark of film noir) and director (The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen). Huston was a storyteller whose films were always both well conceived and strongly character-driven. Possibly best described as the Ernest Hemingway of directors, John Huston was a man whose “persona, ethos, prose style and virile code had a powerful influence on his life and work” (Jeffrey Meyers in the book John Huston: Courage and Art).
Walter, John and Anjelica are not the only ones in the Huston clan working in film. Tony Huston, Anjelica’s brother, is an actor, writer and assistant director, and Danny, Anjelica’s half-brother, is also an actor, writer and director.
Henry Fonda remains one of the greatest actors in history, and one of my favourites, and his Tom Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great American movie characters. Fonda was one of the most natural actors, with the rare ability to exist on the screen without seeming to try, his silences reaching out to the viewer with the same force as his spoken words – in The Grapes of Wrath it is, in fact, his body language, so disturbingly and unforgettably precise, that seems to have a more arresting impact than his lines. In Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda was “perfect, very natural and as authentic as any man on the street” (the film was inspired from real events and used people involved in the story or unprofessional actors whenever possible), as Truffaut himself says in his book, Hitchcock/Truffaut. But it was also Fonda’s role in Once Upon A Time in the West that I took particular joy in, because he was cast against type. He had never played a villain before. He raised to and surpassed the challenge.
Henry and Jane Fonda did not have the best father-daughter relationship, which Jane reportedly often called distant. Somehow, you find it hard to believe when you see how much Jane resembles her father physically. “My father was a loner. He was not a Hollywood insider and he never talked about the business with us, so I never learned or understood that this business is built on relationships,” she was explaining in a Hollywood Reporter interview. She added that the only actor who ever taught her much about life, more than acting, was Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. “Even though I did the movie for my dad, I produced it, who I learned from was Hepburn. I was 45 when I made that movie, and it was she who taught me to be self-conscious. I used to think that was a bad thing, but that means being conscious of the self you project to the public; having a persona, a style, a presence. I had none of that. I didn’t know how to dress! When I went onstage for my father at the Oscars, because he was too sick, I couldn’t believe how I looked and how I was dressed. I never paid attention. Hepburn taught me to pay attention and that style is important.”
I believe however that the foundation for style had, maybe unawaringly, already been laid. Not only had Jane already established herself as a talented and authentic actress, opiniated woman and human rights activist, but as a woman of innate elegance, too. In 1978, Jane Fonda came to the Cannes Film Festival to champion Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. She was photographed by the Traverso family, the famous family of photographers who have documented the festival for decades, and whose work was published in the book Cannes Cinema: A visual history of the world’s greatest film festival. The book also captures one of the most apt descriptions of Jane: “Her unequivocal opinions against the war and in favour of the feminist movement were well known. But her appeal lay above all in her elegance and her smile. She had the authenticity of an actress completely in control of her art.”
The defiance that infused Jane’s persona clearly echoed with that of her brother, Peter, after he co-wrote (with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern) and starred in the legendary film Easy Rider., which depicts the role of the self-proclaimed rebel in a conformist society. The younger generation in the Fonda family includes Jane’s son, Troy Garrity, and Peter’s daughter, Bridget Fonda, one of cinema’s it-girl in the 1990s.
photos: 1-John Huston on the set, 1970s / 2-John and Anjelica Huston on the set of “Sinful Davey”, 1968 / 3-Anjelica Huston and Wes Anderson by Laura Wilson, on the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums / 4-John and Walter Huston on the set of “A Passenger to Bali”, 1940 / 5-John Huston on the set of “The Night of the Iguana”, 1964 / 6-John Huston and Kirk Douglas on the set of “The List of Adrian Messenger”, 1963 / 7,9-Jane and Henry Fonda by Leonard McCombe, 1959 / 8-Jane, Peter and Henry Fonda by Paul Slade, 1963 / 10-Jane Fonda on the set of “Les félins”, 1964 / 11-Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, 1940 / 12-Jane Fonda by Bob Willoughby, on the set of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, 1969 | special credit goes to The Red List, for their extensive, first rate archive of photographs