Close Encounter: Her Greatest Role Yet?
BY Ari Karpel
January 13 2012 4:00 AM ET
Measured that way, Albert Nobbs will no doubt be an event among lesbians and transgender people who yearn to see their histories on-screen. However, this isn't Close's first foray into characters that resonate with queer audiences. She long ago earned community cred with her turn as involuntarily discharged National Guard officer Margarethe Cammermeyer in the 1995 TV film Serving in Silence. That was also a role Close fought to bring to the screen. And the parallels between both Nobbs and Cammermeyer are obvious to Close: "In a way, she's somebody who had to live like Albert Nobbs. I mean, she couldn't say who she was. And no one should ever be put in that position. No one. It's the cost of 'don't ask, don't tell.'"
Still, Nobbs isn't the only cross-dresser in his, er, her, story. Some critics have already claimed that Oscar nominee Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds) steals scenes from Close as Hubert, a handsome painter Nobbs meets at the hotel where she works. For this role, McTeer earned Best Supporting Actress nominations in the Golden Globes and Film Independent Spirit Awards. Hubert, who also dresses as a man and is happily married to a woman, becomes an object of Nobbs's aspiration. The difference is that Hubert is a lesbian — maybe a transgender man. Hubert is clearly not expressing male physicality for the same reasons Nobbs is; this character is in love with, and sexually attracted to, a woman. But like Nobbs, Hubert is rooted in a time long before identity politics.
"She wouldn't say 'I'm a lesbian' or 'I'm transgender,'" says McTeer. "She didn't know those words." When McTeer first read the script for Albert Nobbs, she was struck that the story existed in a time before labels. "You can't say 'I'm a lesbian' or 'I'm transgender' or 'I'm straight' or 'I'm gay' or 'I'm bi.' You can't say any of those things because (a) nobody ever discusses it and, (b) nobody's ever heard of it!"
Explains Close: "When [Nobbs] goes into Hubert and Cathleen's house, it's the first time she's been in a home. For her to see two chairs in front of the fireplace, that becomes the symbol for what she wants in her life, and that represents safety and connection." And, Close says, when Nobbs pursues a relationship with Helen (Mia Wasikowska), it's out of a desire for safety rather than a sexual desire.
"I honestly think that in an enlightened world gender should be irrelevant as far as human connection is concerned," says Close. "Where one finds safety, where one finds love and connection, I don't think it should matter."
That struggle for safety and connection compelled Close to soldier on and get the story made. She had played Albert Nobbs in a 1982 stage version of Irish author George Moore's 1927 short story.