Why Is Anjelica Huston’s Biography So Unsatisfying?

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It is interesting to think about what the blogosphere, in the post-Lena-Dunham age, would have made of someone like Anjelica Huston. Charges of “nepotism” are now often made against the children of stars and various Hollywood power moguls. In Dunham’s case, they’re slightly incorrect, as her parents were well-regarded artists, a social position more inflated by status than actual money. But Anjelica Huston was born into money as well as status, and tons of it. Her new memoir, A Story Lately Told, makes that clear, at least.

The book only follows Huston up to the point, in 1973, when she went to Los Angeles to become a star. But before that, she’d lived in a giant Irish estate, where her family had horses, and if her book is to be trusted, a great many varieties of perfume, considering. One doesn’t get through a single page without the name of some consumer item dropping. Which is understandable, I guess, because it’s what people go to celebrity biographies for. The swag, I mean.

To Huston’s credit, she’s rather self-aware about the nepotism business:

It was remarkable how things came so easily to me. In every generation a flock of pretty girls was released into society with the help of their mothers, via the pages of the glamour magazines. They wore the bright plumage of the newly initiated, and the adornments of their ancestors only served to enhance their youth. Often they were the progeny of good bloodlines — rich, clever, famous fathers and the beautiful women who married them. I was no exception to this fortunate rule, but in retrospect I remember wishing I had something to fight for.

Which is a lovely sentiment until you get to Huston’s next line:

This was the beginning of a habit of making things harder for myself than they needed to be.

How, exactly, she did this isn’t clear. This biography is largely impressionistic, after all, and it is difficult to demonstrate its meandering quality to you without your reading it. It is not so much that any individual paragraph lacks insight or sense or even well-constructed sentences, though there are nonsensical clunkers like, “They were playing loose and fast with drugs, altering their moods to match the whimsy of the time.” It’s mostly that the whole thing skims along the surface, lacking what you might call the true insight of the best memoirs. You learn from this that Huston grew up in Ireland then London, then fell into modeling and got into an abusive relationship with a photographer in New York. If this strikes you as aimless, it is, but aimlessness is easier to live than to write.

On the back of the jacket you’ll find that nonetheless the book earns the endorsement of no less than Joan Didion, Mike Nichols, and Colm Toìbin. The whole blurb business is horribly corrupt and embarrassing for all concerned; imagine going to your friends and asking them to write salutary recommendations of you on your LinkedIn profile and you’ll have an idea of the experience. And no one can fault these folks for offering up what praise they can for someone they may consider an actual friend.

The latter two, however, used the magic word I expected supporters to use for this book: glamor. Anjelica Huston is undoubtedly glamorous. She has undoubtedly lived a life worthy of our attention. But the trick of a really good celebrity memoir is not to rest on that particular laurel, but rather to try and construct something unexpectedly honest and most of all raw from an experience governed by glitter and patina.

It is, actually, possible to do this, though usually it requires a ghostwriter to teach someone like Huston that writing involves more than setting words on a page, which she can do prettily enough. It also involves someone encouraging her to dig deeper. Because I suspect that there are many people who, like me, were greatly looking forward to this book. There’s something about Huston that intrigues me, and it isn’t the glamor quite as much as it is how one goes from a large country estate in Ireland to modeling to a sudden turn into directing Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. This book, projected to be the first in a series — the next one, to come out next year, will pick up in Los Angeles — doesn’t provide any insight on that. Better luck for us all next time.