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The Virtue of Stillness: The Performances of Glenn Close

Midway through “The Wife,” Nathaniel (Christian Slater) asks Joan (Glenn Close) about her writing. The wife of Joe (Jonathan Pryce), the new winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joan gave up her own burgeoning career decades ago. She gives a slight smile in amused contempt. “I’m not a writer. I had some potential.” Bone burrows further, trying to find the reasons why, the feelings she has about living largely in his shadow, and a greater truth about her creative influence over him. The mask doesn’t slip: beyond a mocking laugh (“Aren’t you the therapist?”), she reveals very little. Her face and body hardly move. When they do, she’s mostly toying with him. No matter how much he prods and probes, she’s in total control, ready to take whatever secrets she has to her grave.

“The Wife” features one of Close’s best performances, and her most notable role in some time. Once one of the top actresses in Hollywood, garnering five Oscar nominations in a seven-year span, she’s had more success on TV as of late, earning two career-high roles on major FX dramas while mostly popping up on film to bring a certain level of professionalism to small roles. Seeing her in action again in “The Wife” is seeing a performer who gets more out of stillness than almost any other actor, using small glances and smirks to reassure or unnerve, depending on the moment. No matter the character’s intentions, however, she’s almost always the figure whose choices shape the lives of the people around her, for good or for ill.  

Close came to acting after an unusual youth: born in an affluent world, her family forsook their privilege to join the Moral Re-Armament, a communal group that Close has since described as a cult that “[dictated] how you’re supposed to live and what you’re supposed to say and how you’re supposed to feel.” After exiting the MRA at 22 (her family has also since left), she studied theater and anthropology in college before beginning her professional career on Broadway at 27, acting in shows ranging from “King Lear” to “Barnum,” for which she earned a Tony nomination. It was on stage that George Roy Hill saw her and chose to cast her in her first film, “The World According to Garp.”

On paper, the choice to cast Close as the mother of Robin Williams despite their four-year age gap is curious. In practice, it’s perfect. Even beyond her relatively late start on film at 35, Close shows the sensibility of an older, wiser, and slightly stranger woman. As Jenny Fields, she walks through life with a unique combination of maternal warmth and steely determination. It’s funny when she answers her son Garp’s big, philosophical questions with an unearthly matter-of-factness (“Everybody dies … the thing is to have a life before we die”), and funnier still when she races into situations on a whim without any measure of self-consciousness. In a scene in which Jenny and Garp get a cup of coffee with a prostitute, Close’s uninhibited curiosity manifests itself in an exaggerated forward lean and unbroken gaze, as if the whole idea of sex for pleasure (something she doesn’t partake in or seem to understand) were both inexplicable and fascinating rather than commonplace. Better still is her utter bewilderment and matter-of-fact dismissal of the idea that prostitution is illegal (“that’s silly!”). Close’s Jenny radiates intelligence, confidence, righteousness and sweetness in a way that makes it easy to see why a whole movement might form around her as a feminist icon, as it does. At the same time, her nurturing but domineering nature, however well-meaning, warp Garp in ways she couldn’t possibly have predicted, showing how children can mirror their parents while reacting wildly against them.

“Garp” earned Close her first of six unsuccessful Oscar nominations (she has more without a win than any living performer). She garnered two more in consecutive years, first in Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill,” then in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of “The Natural.” Both big middlebrow hits at the time, neither film has aged particularly well, the former playing to Boomer narcissism while only somewhat undermining it, the latter selling out the downbeat ending to Bernard Malamud’s novel for triumphant but hollow iconography. Still, Close makes an impression in her limited role in both films. As Sarah Cooper in “The Big Chill” (pictured above), she puts on a good face as the mother figure in the group of friends, hiding her deep self-judgment for her affair with their dead friend, Alex. In a confession to JoBeth Williams’ Karen, she races through her story without putting too fine a point on any of the words, letting their rueful tone come through naturally, suggesting grief and nostalgia in equal measures. Iris Gaines in “The Natural” is less interesting, too strenuously symbolic of down-home absolute goodness, but Close lends the character some tenderness with a regretful, almost whispering tenor that helps chip away at how tediously forgiving the character is on paper. 

A more interesting role, improbably, came with the 1984 Randa Haines-directed ABC movie-of-the-week “Something About Amelia.” Close plays Gail, the mother to a teenager (Roxana Zal) who tells her guidance counselor that her father (Ted Danson) has sexually abused her. The film’s strongest thread is Close’s gradual journey from furious disbelief to agony: Close beautifully underplays her initial reaction, her smile slackening but not quite fading as she prods insistently, taking a soft, defeated tone as she refuses to accept it. When she later realizes the truth, Close’s gestures are just as inspired: first crooking her head slightly (“you’re not lying, are you?”) then, after a furious outburst (“why did you let him?”), she races toward her daughter almost as if she might strike her before embracing her, that pent up energy and anger falling away in an instant. The film is smarter and more sensitive than one might expect, but Close’s choices cut the deepest as she gradually internalizes Gail’s deep guilt, letting it guide how she makes decisions for her family.

Guilt and disbelief come into play in 1985’s crackerjack thriller “Jagged Edge” as well. Close plays Teddy Barnes, a top lawyer who reluctantly takes the case of a rich man (Jeff Bridges, chillingly unreadable) accused of murdering his wife, going against the sleazy district attorney/her former boss (Peter Coyote). Close plays Teddy’s growing attraction to Bridges deftly, leaning in but demurring before she’s under his spell. She’s even better in the courtroom or when butting heads with rivals and her skeptical P.I. friend (Robert Loggia, equal parts vulgar and decent), radiating justifiable confidence without being smug, bringing the same matter-of-fact tone she brought to Jenny Fields (“If he didn’t do it, I’ll get him off … if he didn’t do it, I’ll get him off”) for another unfailingly determined heroine. But more revealing is how she plays Teddy’s remorse for her role in an innocent man’s conviction and suicide, her usual composure only barely holding as her voice and breathing almost fail when she finally admits fault. It’s in these moments that Close shows a powerful but decent woman showing the whys of her change in worldview, as well as the hows of her manipulation by malevolent men. 

Close spent the first few years of her film career playing largely well-meaning maternal figures, with her first attempt at a change of pace falling flat with Paul Aaron's “Maxie,” in which Close’s spirited attempt to play a mousy woman possessed by the ghost of a flapper girl are defeated by lackadaisical direction and writing. She got a better opportunity two years later in Adrian Lyne’s 1987 erotic thriller “Fatal Attraction” (pictured above), her most iconic role. Alex Forrest initially comes across much like Teddy: self-assured, inviting, even glamorous. She beams at Michael Douglas’ Dan and picks the exact moments at which to look at him, averting her eyes when broaching the subject of their mutual attraction, then staring straight into his eyes, unblinking: “We’re two adults.” 

It’s easy to read Close’s energy early in the film as mere persistence before her actions become more troubling, first with an attempted suicide attempt after a rejection, then with unending calls and unwanted office visits. Close, an advocate for mental health issues (her sister has bipolar disorder), has since expressed misgivings about how the film eventually turns Alex into a knife-wielding psychopath for a conventional thriller ending (one she fought at the time, when it was decided that the film’s original conclusion was too bleak). James Dearden’s script takes too many shortcuts with Alex’s psychology, but Close more than compensates, playing her as troubled, not crazy. She manages to find intonations that suggest she’s behaving the only rational way, given Dan’s callousness (“I’m not going to be ig-NORED, Dan”), and she maintains that same steadfast determination that helped define Teddy and Jenny Fields, latching onto their good memories in a way that becomes deeply sad, no matter her behavior. Had the film kept its infinitely superior original ending, their final moment together—with Close giving a sad, defeated look as he walks out the door—would have maintained its unbearable sadness, rather than being undermined by a boilerplate finale. 

“Fatal Attraction” gave Close a chance to play the ostensible villain, but Stephen Frears’ delectably nasty “Dangerous Liaisons” allowed her to get downright catty as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil. Introduced contemplating herself in the mirror self-lovingly, she’s a less transparently sordid character than John Malkovich’s Valmont but no less predatory. Where Malkovich’s open lasciviousness leaves little room for doubt as to what his intentions are, Close approaches each scene with an innocent character with a falsely welcoming smile; she lowers her head as if she’s letting Uma Thurman’s Cecile rather than orchestrating her ruin, taking on a concerned tone that only sounds cruelly mocking if one listens closely. She describes herself as a “virtuoso” of deceit, and what’s fascinating is how she manages to pull the wool over Makovich’s eyes even as she’s far more honest about her black-hearted treachery with him than with anyone else, apparently letting her guard down as she speaks (semi-honestly) of her love while letting a slight upturn in the corners of her mouth hint that she’s planning his destruction. It’s a thrill watching her get so much joy out of controlling the destruction of others, and it’s nearly as thrilling watching her face fall when she realizes she’s about to lose that ability altogether.

“Dangerous Liaisons” provided Close with arguably her best role. 1990’s “Reversal of Fortune” (pictured above) meanwhile, is the best film in which she’s appeared, as well as one of her most essential castings. Director Barbet Schroeder gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition of Close’s mischievous, dryly funny narration as the comatose Sunny von Bülow and her impassive body, but he gets even more in flashback scenes between a boozing, depressed Sunny and her icy husband/future accused murderer Claus (Jeremy Irons, who won a richly deserved Oscar). Close carries herself throughout as a woman who’s simultaneously in control of her family’s destiny and slowly self-destructing, possibly by choice, keeping herself still while tearing into Claus in with a smile or a sly remark, then collapsing as her drinking gets the best of her. Sunny is the rich spouse, and the one with the old-money view that her husband shouldn’t deign to take a job. The actress plays their confrontations with a mixture of blueblooded arrogance and genuine unhappiness, turning over her accusations that he’s a “prince of perversion” and that she “didn’t marry you for this” into daggers while hugging herself in self-pity. By the time she slips fully into addiction, her final confrontation with Claus sees her manic, jaw moving a mile a minute while everything else remains still before she finally breaks down. In these scenes, we see both potential Sunnys simultaneously—hyper-controlling narcissist and pitiable addict, plausible murder victim and suicidal wreck—and it’s key to the film’s success.

Following a bizarrely stilted turn in “Hamlet” that’s improbably far worse than Mel Gibson’s work, Close spent much of the '90s veering back-and-forth between DOA prestige projects (“The House of the Spirits,” “Paradise Road”) and middling TV movies (“Sarah, Plain and Tall,” the pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell-set LGBT military drama “Serving in Silence”). Still, there are some gems in the period, including Istvan Szabo’s lovely “Meeting Venus.” Playing a Swedish opera star who’s initially unimpressed with the unknown Hungarian conductor (Niels Arestrup) leading a production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” Close embarks on a love affair with him. Their scenes together in hotel rooms show are incredibly tender, with Close wistfully smiling as she talks about how failed romances made her more gentle. If the film leans a bit too hard on their romance to symbolize the tenuous relationship of a reunited Europe, it never forgets the human beings struggling to make sense of a difficult romance in a new world, with Close’s heartbroken but not regretful pronouncements at their breakup suggesting the limits of trying to force a union. “Alright, it’s over. Go to hell. It was beautiful, it’s a pity it’s over.”

Most of Close’s best work in the ‘90s came in comedies, whether it was as a very funny Pat Nixon/Nancy Reagan hybrid in “Mars Attacks!” or a turn in “The Simpsons” as Homer’s long lost mother. Close received the most attention for her star turn as Cruella de Vil in the live-action remake of “101 Dalmatians.” The film itself is a bland “Home Alone” knockoff, but while Close can’t quite match her animated counterpart, she’s still by far the best thing about it, seemingly playing de Vil by way of Norma Desmond (a role she took on, and won a Tony for, in the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard”), all lunatic grins, flowing handwaves and exaggerated “daaahlings” as the megalomaniacal fashion goddess. She’s equally funny, and only slightly less broad, in Robert Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune,” playing the pretentious playwright niece of Patricia Neal’s Cookie with a lilting southern belle voice and a constant judgmental grimace. Mortified by her aunt’s suicide (“suicide is a disgrace”), Camille is another one of Close’s controlling family heads, deciding the potential jailing of an innocent man is preferable to the personal shame she may face.

Her best comic performance came in 1994’s “The Paper” (pictured above), by far the best of Ron Howard’s comedies. As Alicia Clark, the managing editor of a scrappy NYC tabloid, Close is torn between her sympathies for the regular staff she used to be a part of and her duties to the bottom line; she sits in staff meetings with a cross-legged, leaned-back “I’m in charge” demeanor as she looks over the brim of her glasses, but still trying to get in jokes with her co-workers (on what to do after stepping over bodies: “I have a cigarette and go to sleep”). The film’s central conflict between her and Metro Editor Henry Hackett (a very funny Michael Keaton) over getting an accurate story vs. getting the paper done on time is further complicated by her ulterior motives—more money for expensive tastes—which Close physicalizes with an insistent lean and casually threatening tone when she mentions her potential job offers. What’s remarkable about Close’s work in “The Paper” is how she blurs Alicia’s self-interest and pragmatism without making her a monster, showing a woman who became controlling to self-justify her bad choices as she gradually makes her way to the right one.

After being bitten by the Altman bug, Close spent much of the early- to mid-2000s co-starring in ensemble-driven dramas. Though she does solid work in her two Rodrigo Garcia films (“Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her,” “Nine Lives”), her best work in the bunch is in Chris Terrio’s “Heights,” a somewhat self-serious everything-is-connected drama that nevertheless comes to life whenever she’s on screen. Playing an acclaimed actress dealing with A) her husband’s infidelities, and B) her belief that her daughter (Elizabeth Banks) is marrying the wrong man, Close finds a way to come off as both genuinely well-meaning and deeply controlling. A sidewalk conversation with Banks sees her brilliantly signifying slight alterations in intention over the course of a minute, first raising her voice in a “what’s the big deal?” tone as she pushes her daughter toward a nice guy, then letting her face and voice drop as she reprimands her daughter for not listening to her, then offering advice with a friendly smile before an offhanded cruel remark from Banks sees her eyes going darker as she turns away, wounded. Throughout the film, Close lets small shifts in her eyes and face show a woman coming to terms with her weaknesses and insecurities while trying to balance caring for her daughter and not smothering her, leading to a truly lovely, understated finale between the two.

While “Heights” gave Close one of her better film roles, the late 2000s saw her doing her best work on TV. After a memorable appearance as a Supreme Court nominee in a late episode of “The West Wing” (in which her work helps make up for a Supreme Court gamble that’s somehow dumber than “let’s hope the Republicans blink on Merrick Garland”), Close took on the female lead role in the fourth season of “The Shield.” As Captain Monica Rawling, close comes off as weathered and warm as she tries to clean up both the precinct and Los Angeles without alienating citizens or cops. Whether she’s interrogating an abusive foster parent with barely hidden venom or calling out her predecessor-turned-councilman’s self-serving reasons for cutting a deal with a dangerous drug kingpin through gritted teeth, Close suggests a decent cop who’s had to fight like hell to do the right thing in a rotten system, and who’s barely maintained her sanity and self-control doing it. At the same time, she lets an arrogant streak (and racial blind spot) show through as she flippantly dismisses concerns about her search-and-seizure program, which eventually leads to her downfall. Her relationship with Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey grows from tenuous to genuinely respectful, almost affectionate; their final scene together is one of the most moving of Close’s career as she takes on a motherly role, holding back tears just long enough to plead that he not go down the dark path that seems to await him. She’s done her best to do right in a lousy world, and her thanks are an unceremonious sendoff and the knowledge that what good influence she had, on the the city and on Mackey, was fatally limited. 

A pair of remakes—2003’s “The Lion in Winter” and 2004’s wildly uneven “The Stepford Wives”—gave Close a pair of her classic villain roles, the first as the manipulative Queen Eleanor, whom she distinguishes from Katharine Hepburn’s version with a chillier take, the second as the psychotically chipper mastermind behind a reactionary society. Her best villain as of late, however, came with her other FX drama, “Damages” (pictured above) in which her high-profile attorney Patty Hewes represents vulnerable people by lying, cheating and far worse. Close’s mind games with Rose Byrne’s idealistic underling are that of a Machiavellian mother figure—her icy dismissals with a casualness that suggests she barely has time for anyone, her warm reassurances as her eyes suggest her smile isn’t entirely genuine—always lying just well enough to keep us in doubt as to her true feelings. Good and evil are passé to Patty; winning at all costs is all that matters, and Close makes that potentially limited story worth watching by showing its thrilling highs and its ultimately isolating lows. 

Close has appeared in a number of genre films over the last decade, from big hits (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) to gargantuan flops (“Warcraft”). Most of her roles are small and not particularly memorable, but she stands out in the uneven but not uninteresting zombie drama “The Girl with All the Gifts.” As Dr. Caldwell, a cropped-hair-sporting military scientist who’s more than willing to test (read: kill) Sennia Nanua’s Melanie, a young girl afflicted with flesh-eating compulsions, despite her human behavior in order to save mankind, Close plays her role as someone who takes no pleasure in her task but little compunction in carrying it out. In her debates with Gemma Arterton’s more humane schoolteacher/researcher, she speaks with a tenor that’s both understanding and firm in its resolve, constantly rationalizing her choice to write off a by-most-appearances human life. Though she’s saddled with some of the most thuddingly expository dialogue in the film, Close imbues even the most cumbersome monologues with a coldly rational manner, as if her every moment sees her gearing up for the unthinkable. She can take charge and do what is necessary by killing her conscience, or else acknowledge the unthinkable and lose mankind.

Though she earned a pair of Emmys for her work on “Damages,” Close’s Oscar has remained elusive, with her most recent nomination coming for her 2011 drama “Albert Nobbs” (she lost to Meryl Streep’s near-worst work in “The Iron Lady”). Playing a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to escape violence and earn a decent life, the actress gives a technically accomplished performance, but the film (directed by frequent collaborator Rodrigo Garcia) never defines Nobbs beyond a desire to stay hidden for safety. The success of the performance depends on Close concealing her emotions and desires from others while projecting them to the audience; she succeeds at the former, but the latter never really happens, and the role comes off mostly as a stunt as a result.

“The Wife,” by contrast, shows exactly how that balancing act is achieved. In its early scenes, Joan’s reticence can easily be written off as simple shyness and discomfort in the spotlight, her long pause and faraway look as she listens to the news of his Nobel win a simple case of nerves. As the film carries on, however, her simple explanations of her clear discomfort ring true while not quite revealing the whole truth. “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife” becomes more than just a simple point of pride, but a barely suppressed acknowledgement of her own contributions to their lives and success. With her careful elisions and studied responses, Close paints a portrait of someone who has relished being the most important person in her family’s life while chafing at the lack of acknowledgement of her credit within the family. The role is both atypical in its apparent recessiveness and ultimately of a piece with her body of work, a woman whose stillness and quiet bely a self-described “kingmaker.” 

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