The Divine Glenn Close

With Albert Nobbs available on DVD tomorrow we chat with the film's star about blurring gender, Hollywood and why her latest passion project is a must-see for lesbians.


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Photo credit: Robert Ashcroft/DirectTV

Over the years, we’ve seen the elegant and diminutive Glenn Close as a psychotic, knife-wielding, pseudo–femme fatale (Fatal Attraction); as a powdered 19th-century Parisian villainess (Dangerous Liaisons); as a black-and-white-haired witch (101 Dalmatians); as a ruthless, cold-blooded lawyer (Damages)—as all manner of female schemers. And, closest to our hearts, we’ve even seen her as a lesbian Army colonel in full dress uniform (Serving in Silence). But we’ve never seen her like this.

In her latest groundbreaking role as the title character in Albert Nobbs (available on DVD tomorrow May 15), the youthful-looking 64-year-old plays a woman who lives as a butler in 1860s Dublin. The specter—or if you prefer, spectacle—of the patrician, oh-so-female, blue-eyed blonde transformed into a man is riveting. You can’t take your eyes off the iconic actor’s face. During the 32-day shoot, Close spent more than two hours a day in makeup (and her transformation does include some minor facial prosthetics, as well as a fabulous wig).

This passion project, opening nationwide on Jan. 27, has taken Close decades to bring to the big screen. Aside from reprising her Obie-winning role in the 1982 Off-Broadway play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, by feminist playwright Simone Benmussa, Close helped to produce and write the screen adaptation, and even worked on the theme song, performed by Sinead O’Connor. Her tremendous effort to see the project through came from a deep love of the character. Close was not waiting for Hollywood to deliver her dream role.

 

 

Guts and Glory
Back in the day, Glenn Close earned the adoration of lesbians everywhere when (with Barbra Streisand as a co-producer) she played the lead role of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer in the 1995 television movie Serving in Silence. Cammermeyer, who was on track to become a general, was ousted from the U.S. Army for revealing that she was a lesbian during the early days of the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy.

The role was quite a revelation to Close. Despite her three marriages (she is currently married to the computer scientist and Wall St. financier David E. Shaw), she claims that kissing Judy Davis, her on-screen lover in Serving in Silence, was enough to convert her, briefly, to lesbianism. “Oh, it was amazing. It changed me. It was like this Aha! moment. It was not intellectual—it was like a visceral feeling, being attracted, being in love with your own gender,” she said during an interview for this article. “It has informed me a lot. It was a good thing to go through.”

Taking on that role was a ballsy move at the time, but then, throughout her long and highly acclaimed career, the New Yorker has never shied away from controversial roles. That career has spanned more than 35 years, during which she has amassed a ridiculously large trove of acting honors: five Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globes (eight nominations), three Tonys (four nominations), three Emmys and other awards and nominations too numerous to list. The buzz is that the role of Albert Nobbs may finally gain her the elusive golden statuette.

Using her extraordinary talent, Close brings a superb authenticity to even the most clichéd of all Hollywood archetypes. Like many actors of a certain age, she was cast in the inescapable role of “mother” early in her career, playing Robin Williams’ mother in The World According to Garp (1982), even though they were roughly the same age. Fans of the director Rose Troche (Go Fish, The L Word) may remember that Close also brought a nuanced finesse to the morally ambiguous character of Esther Gold in The Safety of Objects (2001), adapteded by Troche from the book of short stories by A.M. Homes. 

But the roles that truly capture our imagination are the ones where she taps into that terrifying dark side.

 


Photo Credit: Robert Ashcroft/DirectTV

 

Something Wicked
Born in Greenwich, Conn., the actress became a household name in 1987 thanks to her breakthrough role as the obsessive stalker Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. As she has shown in her edgy portrayals throughout her career, Close adores exploring women whose power becomes menacing within patriarchal culture. She first began to explore the phenomenon through her fascination with fairytales. Close told a Mill Valley Film Festival crowd last October that this began early in her childhood, when she and her sister spent long days on the family property in rural Connecticut entertaining themselves with a wooden trunk full of puppets. She especially relished acting out the evil witches. “The more nasty I was, the funnier it was and the better it was.” When she was offered the role of Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians (1996), she jumped at the chance.

The latest in Close’s long succession of mesmerizingly manipulative women is her Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning character Patty Hewes on the topical TV series Damages. A doggy boiler this time, Close plays a powerhouse attorney who bends all the rules, plotting the murder of a dog with the aim of taking down corrupt, high-powered corporate executives. “I love Patty Hewes,” she says. “She is so smart, and yet there’s a place where she’s fragile, but she just doesn’t suffer fools and she’s not intimidated by anybody.”

Close sees a connection between Hewes and Albert Nobbs, adding, “I’ve played a lot of women who try to exist in a man’s world, Albert included. The Victorian era was very much ruled by men. Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons was not letting herself be treated in the usual way and was considered wicked.” (That 1988 role garnered Close her fifth Academy Award nomination, but the Oscar went to Jodie Foster in The Accused.)

Like her Parisian counterpart, Patty Hewes “is [also] not allowing herself to be treated in the usual way, and everybody said, ‘Oh, she’s so evil.’ It’s just interesting to me that a powerful woman is so disturbing to people.”

 


Photo Credit: Patrick Redmond

 

There’s Something About Albert
Albert Nobbs may not have the power or the darkness of Patty Hewes, but she is equally complex. In the tightly codified world of 19th-century Ireland, she figures out a unique solution to the problem of being without financial means. If the world won’t give poor women opportunities, she will create her own by putting on a pair of trousers and passing as a man.

The point of Albert Nobbs—imagining the constricted lives of women in that era—offers less titillation than lesbian audiences might expect, given the premise. Thankfully, Close herself, who helped write the script, fleshed out a masterful foil for Nobbs in Mr. Hubert Page, exquisitely played by the towering Brit Janet McTeer (Songcatcher, Tumbleweeds). Both roles show, for the first time on the big screen, what life might have been like for lesbians of that era—a project akin to Sarah Waters’ efforts to reimagine lesbian life in history, correcting the historical record that so relentlessly wrote us out.

The film begins after Albert has survived for 30 years disguised as a man and is working as a butler in one of the Dublin’s fanciest hotels. Albert is forced to double up for the night with the painter Hubert Page, who discovers the 44-year-old’s long-kept secret—and then reveals that he, too, is a woman passing as a man. Despite being a woman, Hubert has managed to marry—to love and live with a wife. This opens up a whole new world for the long-repressed Albert, whose only dream has been to save enough money to open a tobacco shop; for the first time, she realizes that she might be able to share her dream with someone. She decides to court the chambermaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska).

For Close, the core of this story is not the gender play. For her, it centers on violence against women and what women have had to do to survive. A feminist at heart, she sees it as an essential statement for all women, lesbians included. Citing Afghanistan and the Congo, she explains, “There is a huge problem with violence against women across the world. …We have three women in our movie and two of them have been battered and one of them is on her way to being abused.

“Every human being needs to feel safe and to feel connected, and whoever can bring you that, that’s okay,” Close says. “I’ve said it before and I don’t think people really get it—I think that ultimately gender should be irrelevant.”

 


Photo Credit: Patrick Redmond

 

Becoming a “Perhapser”
French-Tunisian playwright Simone Benmussa adapted her 1982 Off-Broadway play from George Moore’s 1927 short story of the same name, which in turn came from an item in a Dublin newspaper. Benmussa, who also directed the New York production, used the play to explore the bleak realities of poor women who have few options for making a living and even fewer for real companionship and love.  

Though queers everywhere will certainly identify with Albert, the protagonist resists easy categorization. She’s asexual, existing between two worlds. To use the language of the original story, she’s a “perhapser, neither man or woman.” Close cites that very complexity: “I think that’s why I’ve always loved Albert. She’s deeply human and she’s living out her very, very specific story.”

A note in the program for the original play insisted, as does Glenn Close, that the story “is not about a transvestite.” In a somewhat surprising statement, she told a crestfallen audience member during the MVFF Q&A that Albert is not a cross-dresser. She contrasted Albert to “someone like Eddie Izzard,” alluding to his more fetishistic, or erotic, relationship to dressing across gender lines.

True to the play, the film represents Albert as a person who changes her gender only to earn a decent living. As far as sexuality goes, the character is completely cut off from her own feelings. “I really think that it’s possible to have people that are invisible [read repressed]. First of all, we now know about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and what that does to you. And if [Albert] was gang-raped when she was 14, and had nowhere to go except into this disguise, that’s never been [dealt with]. Then it’s just stayed with you, and you don’t have any capacity to reach out.” Interestingly, Close asserted her own vision for Albert’s backstory, changing Benmussa’s play and Moore’s original story, in which the young Albert has a crush on a man and consideres suicide before running away and becoming a butler.

 

 

On the Outside Looking In
Close has alluded to the idea that her own background informs her interpretation of the role. When she was 7 years old, her parents joined a commune that was part of the absolutist Christian sect Moral Re-Armament (MRA), a precursor to the Oxford Group (and the basis for today’s 12-step programs). In the late ’60s, she traveled and performed with MRA’s singing group, Up With People. She left at 22 to study theater at The College of William and Mary in Virginia.                        “It’s difficult for me to bring all that in,” she says. “I don’t believe my craft is a psychiatrist’s coach at all, but I do think I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, not being allowed to do things, especially when you’re young. It’s very difficult. It’s killing. So, yes, I think it’s part of my overall consciousness.”

Close brings this experience of estrangement to Albert. “She doesn’t have an inner life, really, until she meets Hubert and that question forms of, Would it be possible? Hubert never gives her the answer to the question that she really needs to ask, which is, How did you do it? Hubert just takes for granted that Nobbs would know how to do it.”

Albert’s complete lack of understanding about what goes on in a loving sexual relationship gives rise to quite a bit of humor. She just goes for Helen because that’s what Hubert suggests. “In the story, I kept with that. Helen was the most lively, and the cheeky one, and the one she thought would be the greatest person in the tobacco shop. People would come because she’s a lively, funny, full-of-life person. …There’s that wonderful part in the story where she’s looking at each maid and saying why it wouldn’t work with them.”

McTeer’s character provides some much-needed—at least for contemporary lesbian audiences—relief. Hubert Page is an itinerant painter with a home; a seamstress wife, Kathleen; and an eye for the maids, especially the cheeky Helen with her “lovely, blond curls.” Close fleshed out this character, writing the very lesbian domestic scenes in the kitchen with Albert, Hubert and Kathleen.

In a pivotal scene in the movie, Albert and Hubert put on dresses to test the possibility of reverting to their feminine selves, and take a jaunt along a beach. Like much of the movie, it’s both funny and touchingly sad: Hubert, who has adjusted to life as a man and knows who she is, clearly looks like she’s in drag. It’s more complicated for Albert. Close recalls how she approached that scene: “I think there is some place in her that thinks that if she gets back in a dress, she has nothing to hide. Yet, after 30 years, she doesn’t even know how to move in a dress.”

Albert falls flat on her face. It’s clear that she can no longer go back to being a woman. “The culmination of that scene is, she realizes that that’s not who she is, either. …This is what I love about Albert, too—when Hubert says, ‘You can be whoever you are. You’ve worked hard and you’ve saved your money, you can do that,’ Hubert doesn’t know what a huge lack of tools Albert has. Hubert thinks Albert is a little more capable than she is.”

 


Photo Credit: Patrick Redmond

 

But what about Albert’s sexual desire? When Helen kisses Albert and tries to bring her into the real world of romantic love, she is in for a surprise, which is how Close chose to play the scene. “It was just surprising and kind of shocking and seemed a little violent. She hasn’t been in people’s bedrooms when they’re making love. I don’t think it’s anything she really thinks about—because why? What good would it do her? She’s just trying to be left alone, to be unnoticed, to save her money and to survive. She doesn’t want to end up on the street. And as quiet as she can be, and as good a butler—I think she gets pleasure from being a good butler and the people she sees every season [who] appreciate her.” Those of you who are all too familiar with this trope of lesbian representation and its relentless omission of Sapphic sex may be rolling your eyes just about now. This interpretation of Albert as lacking sexual desire, even in the privacy of her own room, does harken back to the “twisted sisters,” as The Celluloid Closet calls them, of Hollywood past.

The counterbalance is Hubert’s successful and very comfortable lesbian relationship.  Close calls these scenes some of her favorites in the movie, saying, “You just see two people who are very much in love with each other and have a very happy life. You kind of forget what you’re looking at, actually. I like what the story does as far as people’s assumptions about how people appear, and who they must be, and what they must be. When you see those scenes where there are two women dressed as men, and one woman—and yet they’re all women—it’s just great.”

At the risk of spoiling the ending, lesbians will be delighted to learn that Hubert’s knight-in-shining-armor moment is Close’s favorite in the film. “Hubert and the beautiful, beautiful performance that Janet gives—I think she’s a new kind of hero. I really do.”

I wonder if it is too much to hope that one day soon we can see Hubert’s story, that she can be the lead and not just the best friend.

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