Glenn Close: Playing a male has a fatal attraction

Glenn Close's latest role sees the star revisiting a character she first played on stage 30 years ago – a woman disguised as a man. It could win her an Oscar at last

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The sad little man in the black coat and bowler hat cuts a forlorn figure as he walks through the streets of late 19th-century Dublin. He looks a little like Charlie Chaplin but there is none of Chaplin's humour in his expression, which is always severe and full of concentration. This is Albert Nobbs, a waiter/butler in an upmarket Dublin hotel. At a time of huge unemployment, Nobbs knows that he could lose his job and never be able to find another one. That's why he takes his duties so very seriously, treating such routine tasks as the changing of the flowers on the mantelpiece or the delivery of a pot of tea on a silver tray as if they are life-and-death matters. Albert Nobbs has a secret that the other servants couldn't even begin to guess as they sit eating porridge and toast in the morning. This diminutive, gruff-voiced man happens to be... a woman.

Actress Glenn Close plays Nobbs in Rodrigo García's remarkable new film, Albert Nobbs. Viewers used to watching Close as the formidable power lawyer Patty Hewes in TV series Damages or who remember her as the vengeful, scorned woman in Fatal Attraction and as the scheming aristocrat in Dangerous Liaisons will be startled by her transformation here. Her Albert Nobbs is meek and self-effacing. Just as she buttons herself up in tight corsets that flatten her chest, she keeps her personality under wraps. She can't afford to give anything about herself away, least of all the fact of her gender. Her sexuality is almost entirely suppressed as we discover in her clumsy courtship of a hotel maid (Mia Wasikowska) or when she is forced to share a room with a painter (Janet McTeer) who also disguises the fact that she is female.

The 64-year-old Close has been nominated several times for an Oscar without ever winning one. The signs are that she might well be in the running again for a Best Actress award for Albert Nobbs, which is surely the most courageous role she has played on screen. If her performance had wavered or the film had ever veered into Tootsie-like whimsy, Close would have been left looking very foolish indeed.

"We've all seen movies with women who are supposed to be men and you think that the people in the movie must be idiots if they think that person is a man," Close has noted. "It can take away from the story because you have to suspend your disbelief to a huge degree."

In other words, Nobbs needs to be credible as a man. "That's a huge, huge thing. It's about a woman who has embedded herself in this persona in order to survive. The fact that the audience knows that it's a woman and everybody in the story doesn't is hugely powerful."

Close has a lot riding on Albert Nobbs. She is not only the star of the film. She also produced it, helped raise the finance and worked on the screenplay, alongside such other distinguished collaborators as the Irish novelist John Banville and Istvan Szabo, the Hungarian director of the Oscar-winning Mephisto, who came close to making the movie with her more than a decade ago.

Nobbs has had a very long gestation. Close first appeared in the role on stage 30 years ago, in a 1982 New York production of writer-director Simone Benmussa's The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs (itself taken from the story by George Moore.)

"Miss Close, so lovely in Barnum and as Elena in Uncle Vanya at the Yale Repertory Theater, is almost unrecognizable as Albert. It is not simply a matter of her boyish hairdo – darkened and cut short – but of her manner, movement and sensibility. She is a timid youth who is efficient at work but without grace, eager to please but afraid to be expressive," The New York Times wrote of her performance.

If she was a "timid youth" then, Close's Albert Nobbs now on screen is a figure in middle-age, clearly weighed down even further by her years of deception. She is strangely thin but with her furrowed, wrinkled face and slicked back hair, she passes convincingly enough as a man.

"Having done it on stage, in front of a live audience, I really believed in the power of this story and the originality of this particular character," Close says. "It's a very simple story but it packs this huge emotional wallop." Nobbs, she adds, is someone audiences can root for. "We love characters who have absolutely no self-pity and that become believers in a dream. There is something in everybody that wants to just believe."

The play had been done in "barebones" fashion, on an empty stage and with mime elements. The movie version is more of a conventional period piece. "It's a different chemistry to do something on stage than it is to do something on film. Film brings you right into somebody's face," Close has observed. She has acknowledged that it took her some time "to be comfortable in Albert's skin in front of a movie camera". The precision of her gestures and the strange, mannequin-like way she has of moving are presumably relics of that stage performance but what the film also offers are constant close-ups of Albert's face, which is impassive but in which we can spot hints of her terror about being found out.

In the film, we see Albert Nobbs squirreling away the tips he receives from wealthy patrons and burying the money beneath the floorboards of his threadbare room. His (or her) dream is one day to own a tobacconist shop. Nobbs has put down a deposit and comes tantalizingly close to buying the premises but the shop remains just out of reach. Nobbs's experiences were mirrored by those of Close herself and she tried (and failed) to make the film. "The nature of an independent film is that it almost doesn't get made," she reflects.

As the project inched toward production, Close realized she needed "someone who really knew the Irish idiom, the period". She called Stephen Frears (her director on Dangerous Liaisons) for advice. He pointed her in the direction of novelist John Banville. "John I used very heavily to write dialogue and make it Irish."

Now, after all the false starts, the film is completed and has been screening to considerable acclaim in festivals from Toronto to Telluride and San Sebastián. Close and Janet McTeer are already being talked up as front runners for awards nominations. Surprisingly, British distributors have been hesitant to acquire the film (although several are now known to be interested.) Whatever happens to Albert Nobbs in next year's Golden Globes and Oscars, Close would certainly win any award that might be on offer for perseverance.