Bucket List Movie #442: Prizzi's Honor (1985)
There’s something about nepotism that gives people (okay, me) pause, especially its prevalence in Hollywood. There are, let’s be honest, too many mediocre actors riding on their parents’ coattails (or worse, vice versa). Child-parent relationships are complicated enough without living in a famous relative's shadow or, worse, being given acting parts by virtue of being related. Though she’s reinvented herself as an acclaimed director, Sofia Coppola will always be reminded of her disastrous turn as the ingenue in The Godfather III.
Similarly, when members of an elite Hollywood family come together in a film, it more often than not stinks of cheap gimmickry. The only time the Barrymore siblings, John, Lionel and Ethel, acted together onscreen was the infamous 1932 flop Rasputin and the Empress. Then there's the 2003 comedy It Runs in the Family with Michael Douglas, his parents Kirk and Diana, and his son Cameron. Did you see it? I didn’t.
But there are always exceptions to the rules, and nepotism comes together quite brilliantly in Prizzi’s Honor, the 1985 adaptation of Richard Condon (who also co-wrote the screenplay)’s novel. Prizzi’s Honor is directed by the legendary John Huston, whose growly eloquence was the model for Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood. Huston, a cinematic giant whose career spanned more than fifty years, directed Humphrey Bogart in classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, andThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Did I mention that John was the son of Dodsworth star Walter Huston? And that he directed dear ol’ dad in his Oscar-winning role in Treasure of the Sierra Madre? And that Prizzi’s Honor also stars John's daughter, Anjelica, who also won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this film? That makes John Huston the only director in history to direct both his parent and his child in Oscar-winning performances. As if that weren’t enough, the star of Prizzi's Honor is Jack Nicholson, who was Ms. Huston’s on-again, off-again paramour for several years. You'd think it would be weird for Mr. Huston, directing not only his daughter, but her famously wild lover. From what I’ve read, though, Mr. Huston was much kinder to actors than most directors (Carol Burnett speaks very highly of him in her memoir This Time Together), and he would even call Nicholson “a lovely man to work with”.
Prizzi’s Honor is the movie 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith only tried to be: a dark comedy about a Mafia hit man and the woman he loves... who is also an assassin.
Well, it helps to have something in common, right?
We are introduced to the Prizzi family, who are like the lighter (but no less serious) version of the Corleones. Charley Partanna (Nicholson), is the Prizzis’ adopted son/hit man. Though he’s a ruthless killer and not the sharpest needle on the pine tree, Charley is also earnest, dependable, a heck of a cook, and fiercely loyal the mobsters he calls family. He enjoys an on/off flirtation with ex-fiancee and distant cousin Maerose Prizzi (Huston, never more stunning), a sophisticate who is estranged from the family and still carries a torch for big lug Charley. One day, at a wedding, Charley spies a lavender clad, flaxen-haired beauty (Kathleen Turner), and is immediately smitten. He tracks her down and discovers her name is Irene Walker. Poor Charley obviously never saw Body Heat, because when Kathleen Turner plays women with the surname “Walker”, look out.
Charley is hired to whack a goon who who embezzled thousands from his family, and is shocked to discover that not only is Irene married to him, but that she may have had a hand in it. Irene defends her innocence and that the marriage was long over, anyway. This is enough for Charley, and the two marry. Irene displays an enviable cunning in hits and kidnappings, and Charley can’t believe his luck in finding his dream girl and partner in crime. But the course of true love never did run smooth, especially since Irene is revealed to be a contract killer, and deceit, murder, mob politics and the family honor just add more bumps to the road. Throw in the machinations of a jealous Maerose, and pretty soon our newlyweds might have to put their killer skills to work... on each other.
The story is rather convoluted (and takes a long time to get going), but the main reason to watch Prizzi’s Honor is to see our three leads play off each other. It is completely un-American for me to admit this, but I’ve never been a fan of Jack Nicholson. His onscreen persona, and his nasal, weaselly voice bother me. I don’t mind actors who essentially play the same character over and over (otherwise, how could I love William Powell or Bob Newhart?), but I bristle when Nicholson is hailed as a chameleon. To me, Dustin Hoffman is a chameleon, but Nicholson is always Nicholson. If someone besides me would just address this, I would be happy. But I will admit, for the first half hour, Nicholson makes Charley a truly lovable mook of a character. Well, as lovable as a cold-blooded hit man can be, anyway. Kathleen Turner never fails to be a treat, for she always has a distinctive presence and charm in even her darkest roles. Her Irene is pretty much as remorseless as Matty Walker, but since the film is a deliberately black comedy, she's a lot funnier and her actions go down a lot easier. With her poise, intelligence and grace, had Turner been born a few decades earlier, she would have made an excellent Hitchcock blonde. Anjelica Huston, likewise, plays the vixen in sheep's clothing that could have been played by Joan Bennett or Gail Patrick. Sporting fabulous clothes such as saucer hats and pencil skirts, Huston is excellent portraying the ostensibly fragile Maerose, who bares her claws in many unexpected ways.
Anjelica Huston is living proof that all actors/directors’ offspring aren’t grasping dilettantes looking for an easy road to stardom. Talented, charismatic, and always a glorious addition to any film, the raven-haired and elegant Ms. Huston was the quintessential Morticia Addams (sorry, Carolyn Jones), a deliciously wicked stepmother in Ever After, and easily fell into Wes Anderson’s quirky, deadpan world inThe Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I’ve long been a fan of Ms. Huston, one of the few actresses who can channel Old Hollywood glamour without seeming affected. I’m not sure how Oscar-worthy her part in Prizzi’s Honor is, but it does warm the cockles of my cold, cold heart that she at least has an Oscar in her possession.
It's no small feat to make a comedy about unrelievedly abhorrent people. In my opinion, the best course of action is to have a certain detachment: don't judge or condone your characters, just tell the story, be objective, and let the audience decide for themselves. This is why a film like Kind Hearts and Coronets is regarded as a classic. The movie knows its protagonist is a murderer, but it presents his sociopathic actions in such an outlandish way that we have no choice but to laugh. Framing and tone are everything, and Prizzi's Honor succeeds in both. There are no "good guys" to be found here; everyone is, in his or her own way, a scumbag, but the movie knows this and doesn't insult our intelligence by dictating what we should think about the characters. From a storytelling standpoint, it's like walking a tightrope in platform shoes, but everybody involved in Prizzi's Honor pulls it off. The two Hustons work wonderfully together, so check out this excellent family affair.