Often a nominee, never a winner. Despite her varied career, Glenn Close has missed out on the Oscars. Maybe that's about to change

David Thomson
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:40

If you go back to the days when Glenn Close was playing only sweethearts, saints and thoroughly Good Women, there were those who murmured: "Watch out. Wait until somebody gives her a voluptuous, lusty role." And so it proved. Between, say, 1986 and 1996, Glenn Close delivered herself of the entirely sexual, beguiling but alarming Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, Mme de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, Norma Desmond in the stage production of Sunset Boulevard, and Cruella de Vil in the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians. She was rediscovered as someone fit for great monster sexpots and unleashed demons. Puppies, bunnies and weak men, beware.

And yet, in 1995, she won the Emmy for her TV performance as Marguerite Cammermeyer, the duty-bound military officer who throws her career, her commanding officers and her family into turmoil by admitting, yes, as a matter of fact she is a lesbian (her lover is played by Judy Davis). That was called Serving in Silence, and it took us back to the pained- yet-patient Madonna gaze of Close's early years. And now, at last, she appears in a film, Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road (it could be called Suffering in Song), as a woman who is held prisoner on Sumatra by the Japanese during the Second World War, and in which she triggers the deeply subconscious awareness some of us could never quite put into words - that, all along, she has looked like that classic English rose and martyr, the perennial Good Woman with a plucky, lovely smile, Virginia McKenna! This must be acting.

Close's is a rich and diverse career, in which she has also won three Tony awards - for the lead in the Broadway production of Death and the Maiden; for her performance opposite Jeremy Irons in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, and for the stage Norma in Sunset Boulevard, a heroine, a romantic and a lead beyond Gloria Swanson's dreams (in 1950, Norma was the crazy supporting character in a William Holden picture). And Close has also been nominated for five Oscars (The World According to Garp, The Big Chill, The Natural, Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons). That she has never won begins to amount to one of those embarrassing anomalies, like Cary Grant's bare shelf near the end of his life. Her Alex in Fatal Attraction - I'll say this quietly, so don't jump up and down - lost out to Cher in Moonstruck. If you don't believe me, look it up.

But Close was 50 earlier this year, and we don't need to spell out all the Hollywood reasons why, if you were ever as wicked and alluring as Alex Forrest, you are expected to be dead at 50, or ready for such marginal psychos as Cruella de Vil or the original Miss Desmond (incidentally, Gloria Swanson was just 52 when she won that part over Mary Pickford, 56, who wanted more screen-time, more close-ups, and more cash, too). Of course, Glenn Close doesn't seem like that kind of 50 - she is tiny, still, and very beautiful in that pure, no-make-up, McKenna-ish way. She could play a knock-out, still - a Marguerite Gautier, say, or one of Colette's older women - yet don't be too surprised if Close starts wearing more make-up, and playing older, to stay in pictures.

The real marvel about this much-beloved actress is that she hasn't actually been around as long as 50, and your fond recollections, might suggest. Goldie Hawn, after all, is nearly 52, and she goes back to Laugh-In on TV and Cactus Flower on the big screen - that's 1968 or '69. But Glenn Close didn't make it to the movies until The World According to Garp in 1982, in which she played the hero's mother. She was 35 by then, an age at which some American actresses have already had their fling, married an older man in mutual funds, and gone to live in Pasadena.

But the story of why Glenn Close left things so "late" is instructive, and it helps substantiate that uncommon air of experience she has. She has done very little in the obvious way. For a start, she was born reasonably wealthy, to an old Connecticut family, New England pioneers from the late 1600s. Her father, a surgeon, had a successful practice in Greenwich, Connecticut, a dormitory town for Manhattan executives and one of the guy ropes to the not inconsiderable American class system.

So she was raised on a country estate in the ease of privilege. But her parents were not conventional. They did not mix much in Greenwich, and when Glenn was 13 her father elected to open a clinic in what was then the Belgian Congo. For many years thereafter, the idealistic parents were in Africa, while the kids went to private boarding schools - Rosemary Hill in Greenwich, for Glenn. There's no question about the emotional difficulties that sprang from this, on the insecurity (and insecurity is usually a better breeding ground for actors than wealth and assurance).

At school, as part of a theatrical group called The Fingernails (the Group Without Polish), she played Romeo. Then she toured for a time with a semi-religious, totally uplifting folk-singing group called Up With People - she came by that saintly look not just by birth, but from keeping company with saved boys and girls. But something seemed oppressive or monotonous about that, so she resigned to become a drama major at William and Mary, one of the best and oldest schools in Virginia.

She graduated late, in 1974 at the age of 27, having had a brief marriage to a rock-and-roll guitarist, Cabot Wade. Notably, she always declines to talk about that marriage, and tries to hurry past her muddled twenties. As Jeremy Irons, her co-star in The Real Thing on Broadway and on film in Reversal of Fortune, has said, "She's very lacking in pretence when you meet her, and yet she draws on a life which has been fairly complicated."

She was in her early thirties before she won the role of the impresario's wife, opposite Jim Dale, in the Broadway musical, Barnum. In 1979, she also attracted attention in a supporting role, as the other woman, in a TV movie made from some John Updike stories, Too Far to Go. It was these things that secured the attention of director George Roy Hill who gave her the part of Garp's idealistic mother, a woman who spends most of the movie somewhere around the age of 60. That was the debut of a character actress, someone more than ready to appear less attractive and heavier than she really was. But she was noticed and liked and nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (Jessica Lange won for Tootsie).

For the next few years, Close was cast as sweetness and light and the stalwart in a group. She was the den mother and the sympathetic wife who encouraged her husband to impregnate their friend in Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (Linda Hunt beat her out there as supporting actress in The Year of Living Dangerously); she and Robert Duvall played simple farming people and parents in The Stone Boy, a flop; and she was specially chosen by Robert Redford to be the figure of decency who inspires his baseball player in Barry Levinson's The Natural, an uneasy adaptation of Bernard Malamud's allegorical novel (she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress again, but bowed to Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage to India).

These were not obvious years of stardom, despite her nominations. She married again, to James Marlas, a venture capitalist, in 1984, and in the same year she dubbed the lines of the younger, prettier, but less articulate Andie McDowell in Greystoke. She took a shot at screwball comedy in Maxie, as the spirit of a 1920s flapper inside an Eighties woman - the result was strained and nearly shrill. Her career was drifting when she got the role of the defence attorney who falls in love with her client (Jeff Bridges) in Jagged Edge. It wasn't a very good film (it was written by Joe Eszterhas); her character was a career woman (or stooge) whose heart makes a fool of her head. But it was a hit.

Even so, she was unexpected casting for Fatal Attraction. "Everyone else thought of Alex as a maniac," she has said. "But I thought of her as damaged. I thought it was so obvious, when she says to Michael Douglas, 'If you can't fuck me, you might as well just hit me,' that she was an abused woman."

When Close's straight hair went into spirals for the role, it was as if her serene being had found spasms of self-destructiveness. But the real tribute to her acting was that it started a controversy that went beyond the ambitions of a rather slick movie. For many people saw her Alex not as a crazy, but as a woman used and discarded by a selfish man and driven close to the edge.

In the end, maybe, Adrian Lyne's movie took shelter behind the character's fury and threat, instead of going with the very reasonable question she asks Michael Douglas on the brink of their first sex: "If you're so happily married, why are you here with me?" In other words, Alex (as Close played her) was a woman in love, swept close to disturbance. Played that way (and the film had different endings), the situation is genuinely uncomfortable. The film settled on making her a villain so that Michael Douglas (and the audience) could feel good. Nevertheless, the film was a smash hit, and it established her force and sexuality.

The stress of the role coincided with the break-up of her second marriage. But she soon became involved with the producer John Starke, and they had a daughter together, Annie, born in 1989.

By then, she had also played Mme de Merteuil in Stephen Frears's adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play, Dangerous Liaisons. Hers is the best performance in that film, greedy for power, very sexy, yet yielding finally to a fatal mix of pride and intellect. Close's face was never more regal or severe than in the final passage, when she realises how she has made herself an outcast. It was her second great work in a row, and another Oscar nomination. But she lost once more - this time to Jodie Foster in The Accused. Alex Forrest and Mme de Merteuil were extraordinary opportunities, and both felt like Bette Davis parts - haughty, immensely attractive, smart women who had some fatal anger or flaw, not so much a weakness as an excess of personality. Put it that way and it's easier to understand the uncertainty that overtook Glenn Close: for movie-making now is no longer worthy of Bette Davis.

Even so, Glenn Close's career has been hard to track. She is wholesome still, and eminently sane in interviews, yet her private life has never been fixed for long. The relationship with John Starke did not last. There were love-affairs with an ice-hockey-player, Cam Neely, and with the actor Woody Harrelson (not obvious casting). More recently, she has lived with Steve Beers, a carpenter she met during the production of Sunset Boulevard. None of which is to her discredit; that many affairs would only grace the resume of an actor. Indeed, the record suggests a self- confidence in Glenn Close, as well as an emotional core that is hard to please. She goes her own way, and absorbs the consequences without fuss or self-pity.

So, while she has not maintained her peak of the late 1980s, Close has displayed an uncommon zest to keep working. Earlier than many actresses, she plunged into television projects. In 1984, she and Ted Danson played parents in Something About Amelia, a groundbreaking story about a father who sexually molested his own child. In 1988, she and Keith Carradine were an American couple living in a Mexican village in Stones for Ibarra, adapted from Harriett Doerr's novel. Three years later, she was in Sarah, Plain and Tall, playing a Maine teacher who goes to Kansas in 1910 to look after a widower (Christopher Walken) and his family. That led to a sequel, Skylark, two years later. And then, another four years later, with Barbra Streisand as her co-producer, Close took on Serving in Silence. Her pleasure over all these characters was evident on the small screen, and there was no chance of doing them (or anything like them) on the big screen. Would you also credit that in 1987 she produced a documentary, Do You Mean There Are Still Real Cowboys?

On the big screen, her choices might be regarded as wayward; but perhaps that is just the measure of her carefree and adventurous urging. Immediate Family, in which she and James Woods (an unlikely union) sought to adopt the child of Mary Stuart Masterson and Kevin Dillon; Reversal of Fortune, where she took the comatose cameo of Sunny von Bulow, the wife whom Claus may have tried to murder; Hamlet, in which she was Gertrude to Mel Gibson, the mother only nine years older than the son; Meeting Venus, an excursion to Hungary for director Istvan Szabo, in which she played a Swedish singer rehearsing Tannhauser (this time she was dubbed - by Kiri Te Kanawa); a tiny role in Hook; doing her best in the disastrous The House of the Spirits, adapted from an Isabel Allende novel; Bette Davis-ish again as the fierce boss on The Paper; with a hooked nose and jutting jaw as Cruella de Vil; as the president's daft, TV-addled wife in Mars Attacks!; and don't forget her scabrous brother-keeper, looking like Punch's Judy, in Mary Reilly.

Of course, in the past few years, her movie work has been overshadowed by the immense challenge of Sunset Boulevard, the musical. Remember that show had its world premiere in London, with Patty Lupone in the lead. It then played Los Angeles, where Close's success was markedly greater than Lupone had enjoyed in London. But Lupone had been promised New York, and she had to be paid off (at least $1m) when Andrew Lloyd Webber and his backers opted for Close. Thus, the backstage melodrama was in many ways as great and exhausting as anything on stage. But there is no question in the matter: Close is identified with the role of Norma. If there is ever a movie, no one else could intrude on its light, or make its madness so heroic.

No matter the size and ego that Norma requires, Close is a trouper still: she does what is offered. And so it was her voice reading the girl's diary in the documentary Anne Frank Remembered; and it was her playing the vice- president in what was plainly a Harrison Ford vehicle, Air Force One. There is one larger project on the horizon, and it is a return to Bette Davis country. Hiring Sir Richard Eyre as their director, she and Meryl Streep will do a version of the Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots story, based on Schiller's play but going their own way, in which Close will play the English queen. Is there any chance that she could do it in Alex Forrest's hair - coloured red?

Paradise Road is very moving, and Close is faultless as the prisoner of the Japanese who leads the camp-inmates' vocal orchestra. This is a rare female ensemble, with fine but harrowing performances from Pauline Collins, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Blanchett, Frances McDormand and Julianna Margulies, among others. And Close gives a startling image of what sunburn and privation can do to the face. And yet, this is a movie we feel we've seen before - not least with Virginia McKenna in A Town Like Alice. Whereas Close has had it in her, a few times at least, as Alex Forrest, Mme de Merteuil and Norma Desmond, to make us feel we are seeing something new under the sun.

'Paradise Road' (15) opens on 5 Dec.

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