By Ari Karpel
Originally published on Advocate.com January 13 2012 5:00 AM ET
"She doesn't allow herself to be treated the way women are usually treated," says Glenn Close about Patty Hewes, the ferociously vindictive lawyer she has played on TV's Damages for the last four years. But she could just as easily be describing any number of iconic film, TV, and stage roles she's embodied in her more than 35-year career.
Complicated female characters have been Close's stock-in-trade since her first film role. In 1982's The World According to Garp, she played a World War II-era feminist who becomes a single mother more out of defiance than circumstance. In the ensuing decades there have been Fatal Attraction's Alex Forrest, Dangerous Liaisons' Marquise de Merteuil, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. Add to that abbreviated list Albert Nobbs, the title character of a film Close spent the last 15 years bringing to the screen. She also cowrote the script and wrote the lyrics to "Lay Your Head Down," a song that Sinéad O'Connor sings over the film's closing credits.
Nobbs is a complicated fellow. First off, she's not a fellow. Which makes it the kind of career-defining role that Oscar nominations are made of. The five-time nominee (who has earned three Tonys, three Emmys, and two Golden Globes — and recently was nominated for another Golden Globe, for Albert Nobbs, and two SAG Awards, for Nobbs and Damages) is rendered nearly unrecognizable as a woman in 19th-century Dublin who was orphaned as a child and sexually abused as a teenager. She dresses as a man in order to get higher-paying work, avoid sexual harassment, and become independent. And yet Close's transformation is miraculously free of showy, look-at-me flourishes. Instead, her performance is understated and nuanced, true to the soft-spoken character.
Nobbs doesn't easily fit into our modern notions of gender and sexuality. First of all, Close urges viewers not to call Nobbs a man. "I think of her as a she, for one thing," scolds Close. "I never think of her as a he. Talking to people who have seen the movie, they always say 'he' [because] that's what she looks like. I mean, that's what she hopes you would do."
Close doesn't consider Nobbs a lesbian or a transgender man. She sees her as, like Julie Andrews's character in Victor/Victoria, putting on a costume for a purpose, cross-dressing as an act of survival and economic necessity rather than out of an expression of attraction or gender identity.
"I don't think Albert thinks in those terms," says Close. "Albert is an innocent, and you bring your baggage to somebody like that. How you react to someone like Albert shows more about you than it does about her." 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.
The Connecticut native, now 64, has had a career that moves seamlessly among the stage, film, and TV, playing roles high and low. And unlike many actresses of a certain age, she didn't have to debate whether to move to TV when she took the role on Damages; Close had already done plenty on the small screen, from the 1979 TV movie Too Far to Go to 1984's groundbreaking Something About Amelia, the 1995 Cammermeyer film, and many others. "I kept saying, 'Number 1, is the writing good? And number 2, the British do it!'"
She's proud of her years as Patty Hewes on Damages: "It's really good brain exercises and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. But it's just fun."
But, oh, does she have her priorities straight. The best part? "Somebody does my shopping for me. I have it in my contract that I get the clothes." In Close's estimation, "Patty dresses very grown-up." And Close does not, or did not, until she got to keep Patty's power suits. Speaking on the phone from her New York apartment, Close reports that she's dressed in "a black J. Crew long-sleeve T-shirt and a black pair of workout pants. I live in the Village," she exclaims, "it doesn't matter what I wear."
Indeed, the actress has never strayed far from her New York theater roots, but she doesn't necessarily see returning to the Broadway stage after Damages ends. "I would love it," she says. "My first love is the stage, but I've sacrificed time with my family for 30 years." Close is married to David Evans Shaw, a retired venture capitalist; she has a daughter, Annie, 23, from a previous relationship. It's a huge problem for me to think about being in a show for a year and not seeing my husband [every night]."
Still, it's hard to imagine Close not finding a way — any way — to play more complicated, strong-willed women. In the meantime, there's one more season of Damages to put to bed. Season 5, debuting this year on DirecTV, promises to be a doozy, with Hewes and Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) finally battling each other in the courtroom, and Ryan Phillippe and McTeer among the season's major costars. Close won't reveal further details. "Janet's only just started, and I don't know if she's for me or against me yet," she jokes. Because you're either for Hewes or you're against her, says Close, no doubt smiling. "There's no in-between."