Glenn Close - Lock up your pets, she's back

Nobody plays a manipulative monster as well as Glenn Close. As she returns to our screens in a welcome third season of the legal drama Damages, Gerard Gilbert celebrates the star's formidable froideur

'I've often been mistaken for Meryl Streep, but never on Oscar night," Glenn Close once quipped, alluding to the similarly aged actresses' contrasting strike rates at the Academy Awards. Nominated 16 times, Streep has won two Oscars, while Close has been nominated five times, without once ever having to unfold her acceptance speech. And while Streep attends next month's glitzy ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, to see whether she can bag a third statuette (this time for Julia & Julia), Close may be reflecting that, at an age when she could have been coasting through supporting parts in big-budget movies, or even challenging Streep's position as Greatest Living Film Actress, she is betting her legacy on a cable television role.

But what a role. On the face of it, glacier-eyed, Machiavellian litigator Patty Hewes in the FX drama series Damages is a piece of typecasting: another slippery, boo-hissable baddie for Close to add to her bunny-boiling Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, her heartless and scheming Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons and her puppy-pelt wearing Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. But in the post- Sopranos, post-The Wire world, where TV dramas can take on the density and complexity of Victorian novels, Patty takes this manipulative persona to a whole new level.

Having a witness's pet dog killed in order to anger them into testifying (an ironic storyline, given Close's real-life dedication to the canine race; she takes her pooch on set) is all in a day's work for this wonderfully monstrous lawyer, as she pursues one huge, complex case per series. In the first season of Damages, this involved a class action by former employers of an Enron-style organisation that had milked them of their life savings – the firm's billionaire owner, Arthur Frobisher, played by an unexpectedly menacing Ted Danson.

The second season featured an energy consultant (played by William Hurt, Close's co-star in The Big Chill) with insider knowledge of a toxic chemical, and was inspired by recent environmental law cases involving the US mining industry, while the new series rips Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme right out of last year's headlines. Patty finds herself the court- appointed trustee responsible for tracking down the tens of billions swindled from investors in supposedly the largest financial fraud in the US.

Not that Damages was ever originally conceived as a legal drama pure and simple – indeed, its creators, the brothers Glenn and Todd A Kessler, and Daniel Zelman (the husband of the Will & Grace star Debra Messing) were primarily interested in the relationship between a mentor and a protégée – and they chose a legal firm because they felt that it offered them a world where two women could command power and influence. This relationship is arguably the weakest aspect of the drama, or, at least, the most unintentionally comic. Patty almost comes across as having a crush on Ellen Parsons (played by the Australian actress Rose Byrne), the pretty young lawyer being tutored in the dark arts of litigation – think Notes on a Scandal's Judi Dench to Byrne's Cate Blanchett.

This presumably wasn't the intention, and neither was it an intention to major on what has become the show's USP: the flash-forwards that are as integral to Damages as the clock is to 24. Having used them in the opening season, and had them remarked on so widely, the writers decided to continue with these tantalising glimpses of the story's denouement.

Last season began, as usual, in the future tense, with Ellen firing a gun at a person viewers presumed was Patty. Similarly, the new series starts somewhere near the end, with someone driving deliberately into the side of Patty's car, followed by the discovery of the corpse of a leading character in a bin.

The "six months later" caption is perhaps unnecessary after the third or fourth flash-forward – "We get it," I found myself shouting at the screen, as if the washed-out colours were alone not enough of a contrast to signal the time shift. But then, apparently, in the first series a lot of people didn't understand that these were flash- forwards, so...

The temporal dislocations, as well as the season-long story arcs, have played havoc with the ratings. Latecomers attracted by appreciative word-of-mouth were finding themselves bewildered by a storyline that had already twisted itself into knots. The American audience halved over the course of the first series, with the second series picking up a relatively paltry 1.7 million viewers. Extraordinarily healthy DVD sales, plus the kudos of regular Emmy and Golden Globe awards, have been the lifeline for Damages.

Glenn Close herself signed up for six seasons – a remarkable commitment from an actress of her calibre. She apparently likes the fact that the show is filmed in her hometown of New York, but there is also the sense that she feels well looked after by FX. As an "experiment", Close guested for a whole season on the subscription channel's gritty police drama, The Shield, in 2005 – winning an Emmy in the process. Two Emmys and a Golden Globe have followed for Damages, vindication for the actress, who had indicated to the network that she would be up for a leading role should the right one turn up.

But what is it about Close that makes her the go-to lady for frostily scheming bitches? "Maybe it's my Yankee jaw line," she told The New York Times in 2007, and that patrician froideur is not all make-believe. The actress is descended from 12 generations of a prominent Connecticut family, and when Patty does her disconcerting stare, you can almost feel every single one of those 12 generations in the chilly blue light of Close's eyes.

This old New England bloodline may have led Close down a conventional path had not her father, William T Close, been seduced by something utterly unconventional, and joined a right-wing cult with connections to the CIA, Moral Re-Armament. This led Close Senior to Africa, where he became the personal physician to the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1974, Glenn Close joined Up with People, the conservative performance troupe that grew out of Moral Re- Armament, and it took a long time for this upbringing to unravel, and for Close to find her true métier. It is amazing to think that she did not make her first film, The World According to Garp, until she was 35. In Hollywood that's way too old for romantic leads, which is perhaps why Close has veered towards the opposite extreme.

Not that she feels she is anything like these formidable characters. "I felt shy around Patty Hewes, just as I've felt intimidated by some of the other characters I've played," she has said. "If I were in the room with these women, I'd be totally intimidated, because they're smarter than me. So I have to get over my initial shyness, and work up my courage."

In part I believe her. Not the bit about not being smart, but there's a vulnerability that undercuts Patty, as there was with Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction – it elevated that film above the status of mere slasher-dom. And what makes it doubly effective with Close's characters is that you're never sure whether the vulnerability is being put on – whether it's just the next move in whatever game it is that she's playing.

For when she wants to act coldly ruthless, Close has few peers. Do try and catch the new series of Damages – it's thoroughly engrossing. Only don't be late, or you'll get left behind.

The third series of 'Damages' starts on BBC1 on Wednesday 24 February at 10.45pm

BUNNY BOILERS: FOUR TOP TV BITCHES

Alexis Carrington Colby in 'Dynasty'
Blake Carrington's ex-wife, played by Joan "The Bitch" Collins, OBE, sashayed into the Eighties oil soap in shoulder pads and with a camp gleam in her eye, setting the ratings ablaze as she cat-fought with Blake's new wife, the dreary Krystle, and caused "that blonde tramp" to miscarry by startling her horse with a shotgun.

Janine Butcher in 'EastEnders'
Panto fans will have been enjoying Charlie Brooks's eye-rolling turn as toxic Albert Square bad penny Janine, a prime suspect in the who-killed-Archie cliff-hanger that reaches a climax in tonight's live episode of 'EastEnders'. She recently induced a heart attack in Pat and mocked Ronnie about her dead children.

Sue Sylvester in 'Glee'
"While they were in there, I told them to go ahead and yank out those tear ducts. Wasn't using them..." A brand new entry in the TV bitch charts is the butch, anti-glee club coach of the school cheerleading club in 'Glee'. Sue Sylvester gets many of the best putdowns in Channel 4's fab high-school comedy.

Tanya Turner in 'Footballers' Wives'
"Just a friendly warning for the future, you go anywhere near my husband and it will take more than Botox to sort your face out..." TV's most memorable Wag (played by Zöe Lucker) was married three times, each of her husbands meeting an early death. Cocaine-snorting, blackmailing and baby-swapping Tanya ended up in Brazil, before resurfacing briefly on 'Bad Girls'.

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