Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the cast of The Addams Family films.
In his original 1991 review of Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family, Roger Ebert critiqued the film for not approaching the morbid comic situations with more exploration:
“That leaves the individual moments. Yes, a lot of them are funny. In the months before this movie opened, there were a lot of brief trailers for it in the theaters. You’ve probably seen some of them – like the one where the kids ask if the Girl Scout cookies are made from real Girl Scouts. By themselves, these lines are funny, as were the cartoon captions that inspired some of them. But they don’t build. They get a laugh, and then the movie has to build up to the next one. This is the kind of film that isn’t as much fun to see as it is to hear about.”
For any other film, this would be an insurmountable problem. But as Ebert pointed out, Barry Sonnenfeld’s film captures a similar spirit to Charles Addams’ original New Yorker cartoons. In its own way, this makes The Addams Family film a faithful adaptation of the original source material. Even if the story left Ebert wanting just a bit more plot.
Beginning in 1938, Addams’s original cartoons were snapshots of the traditional American family. But those snapshots were utterly subverted by making their happy home a haunted one. They are an incredibly loving family, but they express that love through all things gruesome and macabre. In one strip, we see mother Morticia preparing a Christmas tree with decorative bats. In another, father Gomez offers paternal advice to his children on the social benefits of owning a “rack.”
The punch-line-driven humor of Addams’ cartoons is paramount to the zany fun of the 1964 television show. Each actor, like John Astin and Jackie Coogan, fully embraced every cheesy bit with uncompromising energy and wit. More so, they were instrumental in shaping the personalities of the Addams clan. This was so their characterizations would be accurate representations of what Charles Addams’ had originally envisioned.
That’s why Ebert’s criticism of Sonnenfield’s film–while accurate–only reinforces what I love about the feature-film adaptations. They capture the essence of both the 1960s television show and Addams’ original cartoons while giving the characters added dimension that reinvigorated the infamous clan over the next three decades.
But how faithful to the source material were the performances in the 1990s film series? Before the TV show went into production, Addams wrote descriptions for each member of the family. I’ll be taking those original descriptions Addams wrote and comparing them to four performances in Sonnenfeld’s films to showcase the pitch-perfect work from the ensemble cast of The Addams Family.
Anjelica Huston as Morticia Addams
“The real head of the family… low-voiced, incisive and subtle, smiles are rare… ruined beauty… contemptuous and original and with fierce family loyalty… even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly… given to low-keyed rhapsodies about her garden of deadly nightshade, henbane and dwarf’s hair…”
With merely the silhouette she strikes, Anjelica Huston is the spitting image of the Morticia Addams that appears in both the original New Yorker cartoons and the 1964 TV show. Without undercutting the performance of the first Morticia, Carolyn Jones, Huston’s interpretation carries far more charisma and gravitas in the simplest of ways. She retains a tight economy of movement, her arms perpetually crossed in front of her body. And while many acting teachers will encourage actors not to cross their arms as it can close their bodies off to the audience, here, it only solidifies who Huston’s Morticia is. She doesn’t have to raise a finger to get her point across. She can do all that with a piercing gaze and a subtle shift of an eyebrow.
But an important distinction to underline is that within the moody stare of Morticia’s stone face, Huston conveys nothing but warmth and affection. While her morals may be inverted from the average American family, Huston carries nothing but outward love and adoration for her flock. Huston’s performance of Morticia perfectly captures exactly what Addams intended: a head of the household who keeps her family cool through a chilly demeanor that warms their collective hearts.
Raul Julia as Gomez Addams
“Husband to Morticia, if indeed they are married at all… a crafty schemer, but also a jolly man in his own way… though sometimes misguided… sentimental and often puckish – optimistic, he is in full enthusiasm for his dreadful plots… is sometimes seen in a rather formal dressing gown… the only one who smokes.”
If there is one person Addams Family stans can earnestly argue was miscast, it’s Raul Julia. He was an exceptional actor who deeply embodied each character he portrayed. But his raw animal magnetism also made him a sex symbol–which is a far cry from the stocky, crooked-tooth smile of Charles Addams’s original creation. His physicality may be a divergence from what Addams first drew, but ultimately that’s where the differences stop. Raul Julia’s Gomez epitomizes everything Addam’s described about the character. He’s jolly, optimistic, and filled with enthusiasm toward life and all of its wonderful horridness.
Julia’s eyes may often flash with uncompromising menacing, but the words he says, the sentiments he holds for his family, and the unbridled passion he exudes towards Morticia shatter any notion that Gomez is anything but a loving husband and father. He may seem like a maniac with a penchant for destruction. But Julia makes sure never to let go of the fact that Gomez is ultimately kindhearted. Just in his own ooky, spooky way.
Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams
“Child of woe is wane and delicate… sensitive and on the quiet side, she loves the picnics and outings to the underground caverns… a solemn child, prim in dress and, on the whole, pretty lost… secretive and imaginative, poetic, seems underprivileged and given to occasional tantrums… has six toes on one foot…”
It’s hard to fully measure just how popular Wednesday Addams was prior to Christina Ricci’s portrayal of the character. In Addams’ original New Yorker cartoons, Wednesday had panels dedicated solely to her character. But she remained underdeveloped in the ‘60s TV show. That means much of what has made Wednesday the poster child for goth kids everywhere came about through Ricci’s performance. She fully embodies the solemn “child of woe” that Addams originally described. Ricci’s voice never rises above a carefully measured monotone, a quality that is reflected in Huston’s performance as Morticia. This shared trait allows us a glimpse at where the children get their learned behavior from.
Because of the subtle power of her performance in the 1991 film, she was able to grab more of the spotlight in Addams Family Values. The shining moment for Ricci’s Wednesday comes late in the sequel. As punishment for her rebelliousness at a sleepaway camp, Wednesday is locked in a cabin and forced to watch countless hours of wholesome family entertainment. Once free from the movie marathon, she walks out of the cabin like a zombie. As the campers gather around her, she intones that she wants to be just like them. To prove this, her perpetual frown slowly starts to change, the muscles in her face constricting as the corners of her mouth begin to curve up. She forms a smile that is at once completely believable, utterly haunting, and absolutely hilarious. All Ricci needed was one moment to birth a macabre icon whose imprint reverberates through pop culture today.
Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester
“Incorrigible, and except for the good nature of the family and the ignorance of the police, would ordinarily be under lock and key… the eyes are pig-like and deeply embedded… he likes to fish, but usually employs dynamite… he keeps falcons on the roof which he uses for hunting… his one costume, summer and winter is a black great coat with an enormous collar… he is fat with pudgy little hands and feet.”
In William Shakespeare’s plays, there is typically one character that just seems to have all the fun. Think Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Legend has it that this was partially because Shakespeare wrote these roles specifically for himself to play. In a similar fashion, Uncle Fester is the character who gets to have the most demented fun across the entire Addams’ brood. And that seems by design because, like Shakespeare before him, Charles Addams said he fashioned Uncle Fester after himself.
Famous child actor Jackie Coogan perfectly surfaced Fester’s strangely incorrigible persona in the original TV show. But Christopher Lloyd’s performance of the character takes everything to 11. Lloyd’s Fester is a fun-loving man-child who feels practically inhuman. His voice carries a strange, mangled rhythm; his oddball body language is masked behind a massive fur coat that swallows his neck whole.
His whole vibes are off-putting–a masterful depiction of the character Addams’ envisioned–but Lloyd smartly plays Fester as someone we can sympathize with. Throughout both films, our hearts bleed for Fester. Characters constantly try to drive a wedge between him and his family by taking advantage of his ghoulish bonhomie. All Fester wants is to feel the same kind of warmth and affection Gomez and Morticia share. But what he gets in return are greedy gold diggers trying to get at his family’s immense fortune. Despite this, Lloyd doesn’t allow heartbreak to steal Fester’s shine. His character redirects his inner love back out toward his family, like when he gleefully demonstrates to Wednesday and Pugsley the best practices for blowing shit up.
His character may be a ghastly eccentric riddled with anxieties. But Lloyd never lets go of the overarching affection Fester has for his extended family. That familial love each actor conveys is the central reason why I find the ensemble cast of Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family films perfectly capture the essence of Charles Addams’s original cartoons.