|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 15 June 1999|
One of the highlights of the later career of director John Huston, Prizzi's Honor won a supporting actress Oscar for his daughter Anjelica, cast as Maerose Prizzi, a calculating, vengeful Mafia princess who knows what she wants and goes after it. The movie received several other Oscar nominations as well, including for Jack Nicholson as best actor, Huston himself as director, adapted screenplay for Janet Roach and Richard Condon (from his own novel), William Hickey as best supporting actor, and for Best Picture. It also garnered nominations (and some wins) from many other organizations that present them.
But the movie has also kind of slipped down behind the couch cushions of America's collective consciousness. It did well financially in 1985, but while other Huston movies from the same period, and others starring Jack Nicholson have remained hovering before our eyes, Prizzi's Honor has faded from view.
This could well be because it's such a dry, wry, low-key comedy; Huston never had an emphatic directorial style, and here he stands back and observes. The movie never goes for jokes, never has a big-yocks scene, but instead adopts the same cool, witty style of the fine Richard Condon novel it's based on (which was successful enough that he continued the story of the Prizzis). The main thesis of the novel, that the Mafia has no honor, that it's all about money, is a bit muted in the film, which is more about the romance between Mafia hit man Charley Partana (Nicholson) and Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner). But it's still a quietly devastating indictment of the crude corruption that really drives the Mafia, and scoffs at the idea that "honor" really plays a part in what they do.
It begins with a wedding -- almost every Mafia movie features a wedding -- at which Charley, devotedly loyal to the Mob, spots Irene, an attractive woman he's never seen before. He manages to track her down to Los Angeles -- the film is punctuated with shots of a plane flying west, then east, then west, etc. -- and they declare their love for one another. But when Don Corrado Prizzi (Hickey) orders Charley to fly back to Los Angeles to take out Marxie Heller, who's ripped off the Prizzi family for a few hundred thousand, right after he kills Marxie, Charley discovers that Irene is his wife, er, widow. He also learns that the reason she was at the wedding is that she was professional killer hired by Charley's father, Angelo (John Randolph), and Don Corrado's two sons, Eduardo (Robert Loggia) and Dominic (Lee Richardson), who run the family's everyday business. She admits to Charley she's done 3, 4 hits a year for some time, "not many if you consider the size of the population."
Nonetheless, Charley loves her, and they get married in Mexico. Dominic's daughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston) was exiled from the family because to humiliate Charley, who backed out of marrying her five years before, she ran off with some guy. Her father won't allow her to come home, and although Don Corrado is kindly toward her (Hickey makes "have another cookie?" sound sinister), she's still an exile. And she still wants Charley, not so much because she loves him, but because she feels she's more entitled to him than Irene, who's not only not in the Mafia, she's not even Italian.
So Maerose begins a scheme, manipulating her father, Don Corrado, her uncle and everyone in sight by playing on their "honor" -- both the imagined kind, and the real kind, which centers entirely on money. As one of the characters says, "What's a little honor compared to 60, 70 million dollars?" She's the master schemer behind it all, and poor stupid Charley, and even brilliant, shrewd Irene don't stand a chance.
Nicholson generally plays guys who are, if anything, too smart for their own good, but Charley Partana is such a dimwit that you can see thoughts pass slowly across his face; some don't make it all the way. Charley never thinks about much of anything, always doing what others tell him is good for the Prizzi Family. He falls madly in love with Irene partly because she completes him; they're both killers, but she's smart. Nicholson wears some kind of dental dingus that makes his upper lip protrude ever so slightly, and he unfocuses his eyes at times. It's a very funny, even witty, performance, but it's as understated and dry as the film itself. Nicholson usually gets remembered for his big, flamboyant roles -- but he's just as good when he's playing his cards close to his vest, as he does here.
Kathleen Turner is also good as Irene, but even though she has secret within secret, they're factual, not part of her characterization, and what you see in her first scenes is what you get throughout. Not the actress' fault; she's hemmed in by the role itself. Not so Anjelica Huston; like Nicholson (and like her father), she understates what she does, but she's brilliant; it may be her best performance. And yet she knows when to break out slightly, as she does when she lies to her father about being raped by Charley -- she even begins to describe how "big" he is, which nearly gives her dad a heart attack. Maerose is nothing if not a great actress, and that's how Huston plays her: she's always got something going on behind her dark eyes.
As Don Corrado Prizzi, William Hickey looks like a two-day-old corpse that happens to be stiffly shambling around. His brain isn't as sharp as it was, but everyone still defers to him, and his cold-hearted greed is undiminished. He thinks he's brilliant, the master of all he surveys, but Maerose manipulates him as if he were a TV remote: push his button and something happens across the room, or across the country. Hickey was primarily a Broadway actor; his movie roles were relatively few until Prizzi's Honor; his brittle, funny, scary performance here gave him enough fame to keep him busy until he died.
Prizzi's Honor deserves to be rediscovered, and Anchor Bay's extras-less DVD is a good way to do it. The transfer is fine and the sound is good (though it's far from being a demo disc). Just remember that this is a cool, laid-back comedy, a witty, nasty satire of the Mafia and the depths of its corruption.