Glenn Close's new film about a cross-dressing butler has been almost 30 years in the making.
There is no crackle on the line to Glenn Close. No echo or delay. No hiss or interference. “Yes! I can hear you! I can hear you fine!” She sounds almost alarmingly near, seated in her flat on Central Park West in New York. Not boomy, exactly, but big on crisp diction. (It was she they called to dub Andie MacDowell’s duff twangs on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.)
“It’s a little bit of a chilly day here, but all the blossoms are out, all the trees are blooming. It’s raining there? Oh dear.” Close is all about the good connection. On Lively Licks, the dog blog she co-authors with her terriers Jake and Bill (they share the byline), along with the celebrity questions and answers and the serious reads on nonprofit organisation Puppies behind Bars,
Close herself offers counsel to mutt-lovers.
“Betty Wigglesworth must continue to sleep with you, especially now that she is getting older,” she advises one. To another: “The important thing to remember when cleaning up an accident is to use a cleaning product that removes all the odour.”
Close opens up (there are candid snaps, shaggy stories) and she reaches out. “Thanks for asking,” she tells a reader who inquires about Jake and Bill’s favourite toy (squeaky monkey).
“People desperately need connection. There is a danger now of getting further and further away from two human eyes looking into two human eyes. The thing that I love is that we have evolved to be empathetic. We have these neurons called mirror neurons, which reflect what you see in other people’s faces.
“But now people think communication is texting and tweeting. On TV, too, you see something horrific on the news and then you go to an advert and then to something else and it becomes this amorphous jangle.” She laughs abruptly, then continues.
“It’s an emotional disconnect. Movies are so powerful because you get this big screen with a close-up and you basically are being connected to another human being. It is as powerful as looking into a live human face. And that is something shared with no other art form.”
Her new film flirts with withheld eye contact. It teases the audience with a lead whose extreme self-effacement presents something of an empathy test.
“The biggest challenge for me was: How much do you show in her face? Because she is so used to having nothing there.” Albert Nobbs is based on an 1895 novella by George Moore, through a 1982 stage production in which Close also starred. It is the story of a taciturn butler in a Dublin hotel who just happens to be—not really a spoiler, this—a woman.
Albert’s cover is blown when a flea invades her corset the one night she is forced to share digs with a strapping decorator, Hubert. But as luck would have it, Hubert, too, turns out to have a feminine secret. Janet McTeer’s bosomy reveal, puffing proudly on a cigarette, has picked up something of a cult following.
Once content melting into the wallpaper and squirrelling shillings beneath the floorboards, Albert is inspired to try to replicate Hubert’s domestic setup, complete with seaside cottage and even a wife. Problem is, Albert is a naif, an orphan who went into disguise at 14 partly to fend off further sexual assault, partly to find work. Her pursuit of Mia Wasikowska’s perky housemaid (herself smitten with Aaron Johnson’s boiler boy) looks unlikely to pan out as planned. Typical date chat: “I think you are the strangest man I ever met.”
The film, too, is one of the weirdest in recent mainstream memory. Stick with it and you will be moved, but it is far from an easy sell. “Dear Jesus, I don’t know what makes people live such miserable lives,” says Brendan Gleeson’s alcoholic doctor near the end—dialogue that would serve well as a tagline.
“I can see why people might find it frustrating. I’ve had critics say: ‘Oh, it’s so sad and Albert is so buttoned up, it’s hard to feel for him.’ Well, that’s fine if that’s the way people read it,” Close says with a hint of bristle, “but I know there are people like that in the world—a lot of invisible, isolated people. And I think they deserve to have their stories told.
“Everybody isn’t triumphant in their life. We should be aware of that and know that, as bad as your life may seem on any given day, someone else is struggling with something much more difficult.
“Of course, in the entertainment world we love heroes and we love villains, we love a lot of action and we love a lot of sex, but I do think there is room for stories of people like Albert. It’s about paying attention to somebody who is difficult at times to figure out. But attention should be paid.”
Close has been here before, wrangling artistic purity and punters’ desires. Twenty-five years ago she fought hard against a reshoot of Fatal Attraction‘s finale, in which her bunny-boiling book editor was throttled in the bath by ex-lover Michael Douglas, then shot in the heart by his wife. The scrapped version—Close slits her throat but frames Douglas for the crime—was more psychologically sound but deemed a bit of a downer by test audiences.
“I learned through that process that catharsis is very important,” she says. In Albert Nobbs, for which she also served as writer and producer, the generally tragic effect is leavened with a semi-sunny epilogue. By and large, though, she thinks people might benefit from a mosey up the hard road.
“The big pop films spell out everything. People get lazy and I think that’s not necessarily a good thing.”
There is an inevitable price to pay at the box office. For a triple Oscar-nominated picture (Close, McTeer, makeup), Albert Nobbs has not had audiences queueing round the block. You fear that might be tough for Close, whose involvement has been intense and personal, a dream of 29 years, ever since she played the part on stage (she even wrote the theme tune). But no. “Everybody said: ‘You’re going to feel so down, you’re going to feel post-party depression.’ And I never felt that. I actually felt fulfilled by the whole experience.”
Perhaps Close, as an actor, is not much fuelled by conventional acceptance. Midway through her audition for the stage role in 1982 she broke off and said: “I’m boring myself, so I must be boring you. I think I’m going to go home.” She did, but the producers hauled her back the next day and gave her the part.
Stealing the limelight
Maybe what they saw was an unusual abashment, which Close—for all her professional steel—seems to share with the character. It is telling that her big-passion project is not one dripping with showreel moments. That sixth consecutive Oscar defeat may have stung more than she has let on, but there is no way such a subtle turn stood a chance against the showboat by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.
Streep is the crucial counterpoint to Close’s career. “I’ve often been mistaken for Meryl,” she once said, “although never on Oscar night.” They share the same angular blonde chops, the same generation (Close, at 65, is a few of years the senior), the same theatre pedigree, the same East Coast upbringing. There is even a slight slippage between their roles: Streep’s lead in The Devil Wears Prada took cues from Close’s fashionista Cruella De Vil, just as Close’s ruthless lawyer on the TV show Damages completes the circle with another tough boss.
Yet Streep is somehow perceived as the more easily lovable star; once an uncomplicated pin-up, now an aspirational dame. Close’s appeal is slippier. “I don’t have the face or body for romcoms,” she said earlier this year, though her two breakthrough roles, in The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, were wholesome enough. Yet it was the double bill of bitches in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons that cemented the reputation.
Even before Albert Nobbs her best performances teetered towards drag, riffed on her strong jaw and ballsy gaze (her Damages character is called “a real hard-dick bitch” in the pilot). Yet even when they are pantomime, they are never quite camp.
Whereas Streep embraces the wink and the nudge, Close goes full throttle on the integrity, with no space for spin.
Close likes identifying the trigger: “When I played Blanche Dubois on stage I thought: this person has classic post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing her lover blow his head off in front of her.”
Shaped my trauma
Has she experienced equivalent stress? It is impossible to know. Close is warm enough on the phone, but she has never opened up about what are obliquely referred to as her “dark days”, when she toured Vietnam military bases with Up with People, a moral rearmament-supporting folk group, whose guitarist she married. They split after five years. Close then enrolled at drama school and has been a Democrat ever since.
Nonetheless, she does believe that trauma can make a person. “I’ve read about and met people who have had horrendous childhoods and they are the most enlightened people. They have a certain kind of soul. With Albert, she did not want to be discovered and so she is not angry or confrontational, she has just shut a part of herself down. It wasn’t like she had huge expectations for her life.
“I think what every human being seeks is safety and connection. Albert has this vision of two chairs and a warm comforting fire and that is her dream. And what I learned to articulate about the story is that there isn’t any such thing as small dreams. To someone like Albert, to have a sitting room with a store downstairs, that’s as big as somebody saying ‘I want to be president of the United States’.”
She must ring off now, her own dream of three decades over.—