A film about a woman

Glenn Close has never done things the easy way, and ‘The Wife’ is just the latest example

Glenn Close (photo credit: TNS)
Glenn Close
(photo credit: TNS)
Five years ago, Glenn Close loaded her two old terrier mutts, Bill and Jake, into her car and drove to the coastal Massachusetts set of the HBO limited series Olive Kitteridge. She chatted with Frances McDormand, and then found the series’ writer, Jane Anderson, who had sent Close a new script, an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife.
Close and Anderson found an empty trailer where they hunkered down to discuss this story of a woman questioning her long-standing marriage to a celebrated novelist. Close raised so many issues that Anderson figured the actress didn’t want the part. But she eventually learned that that’s just how Close works. She needs to understand everything before the cameras roll.
Five years later, and 11 months after premiering to strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Wife finally arrived in theaters last week.
“You wonder why it took so long? A movie called The Wife?” Close asked, letting out a long, knowing laugh that all but makes further explanation unnecessary.
Fact is, no American actor would take the substantial role of the self-important, philandering author – in the book he’s a Jewish New Yorker – because of the film’s title. Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce was eventually cast.
“I think Jonathan probably would have liked it to be called The Husband, but he still took it, and I’m very grateful,” Close said before a screening of The Wife for Motion Picture Academy members in Beverly Hills.
The event naturally lent itself to Oscar talk. With six nods – The World According to Garp (1982), The Big Chill (1983), The Natural (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and most recently, Albert Nobbs (2012) – Close stands as the most nominated living actor to have never won an Oscar.
Close’s long runner-up status rankles some people.
But the 71-year-old actress doesn’t get worked up about it.
“I’ve done without one all these years,” she said evenly, smiling. “I guess now it becomes a badge of honor that I don’t have one.” She adds that she’s particularly proud of the three Tonys she owns. She also has three Emmys, in case you forgot.
A self-described introvert, Close hates schmoozing and avoids parties (“I despise them!” is how she puts it) when possible. She sounds positively relieved that she’ll be starting rehearsals for a play, a Public Theater production of Mother of the Maid that will run through early December in New York, removing her from all manner of awards-season glad-handing. The play, also written by Anderson, tells the story of Joan of Arc’s mother coming to grips with her daughter’s visions.
Anderson marvels at the range Close displays in their two collaborations.
“She’s an Upper East Side intellectual in The Wife, and now she’s playing an illiterate peasant woman who has muddy skirts, works with her hands and has an innocence and a gullibility and a religiosity,” Anderson said by phone. “It’s a class whiplash.”
Close considers herself a late bloomer. Regal, composed and stylish in an Adam Lippes top and trousers, her blond hair grown out a bit from the sharp crop seen in The Wife, Close exudes a guarded warmth and fierce intelligence. Before meeting her for The Wife, Swedish director Björn Runge asked his friend Stellan Skarsgård what to expect. He replied: “Glenn Close eats people like you and me for breakfast. You must be very prepared and aware.”
Runge says he became aware of Close’s skill-set firsthand a year before directing her in The Wife.
Attending a performance of the 2016 revival of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Sunset Boulevard, Runge watched as the sold-out audience of 2,500 theatergoers greeted Close’s entrance as Norma Desmond with a thunderous, standing ovation. (“They screamed like it was a football match,” he says.) Then with just a blink of an eye and a small movement of her left hand, Close quieted the crowd and the theater went dead silent.
“She owned that stage,” Runge said. “And that’s the London Coliseum, so that’s no small thing.”
Close first played fragile, larger-than-life silent screen star Desmond in 1994, winning her third Tony, and then returned to the role two years ago in a lauded revival. She still wants to make a film version of the musical, but plans to begin production in January fell through when the director dropped out.
“I don’t want to give up on this one,” Close said, speaking of an active search for another director to take on the project next year. “It’s just one of the great, great characters and stories, and the music is so powerful. And, certainly, the story remains relevant as ever.”
Meaning: Close isn’t holding her breath waiting for a Hollywood studio to send scripts tailored to her or audiences her age. “It’s a luxury to be handed a fabulous script,” Close says, “but that hasn’t been my career.”
She continues to develop her own projects, saying she has a wonderful role in hand that she can’t quite discuss yet. She has appeared in several indie films recently and last year made a television pilot for Amazon Studios, Sea Oak, that George Saunders adapted from his own short story. Close played a woman murdered in a home invasion who returns from the dead to take care of unfinished family business. She’s wiping off the dirt from the grave as the 30-minute episode ends.
Directed by Hiro Murai, whose distinctive, surrealistic style informs many of the best episodes of the FX television series, Atlanta, Sea Oak will always be a great what-if in Close’s career – Amazon passed on the pilot.
“It was a very scary, smart satire that was so far out, I just think people didn’t know what to do with it,” Close said. She leaned forward, lowering her voice. “I just wanted to do it because never again will I be offered a part where I get to make love with a FedEx man.”
Sexuality is one of many elements incorporated into the relationship seen in The Wife, which includes moments of intimacy and bedrock comfort typically found in a long-standing marriage. Early in the film, Joe (Pryce) can’t sleep because he’s waiting for news of a possible Nobel Prize. So he wakes up Joan (Close) and asks if she’d be interested in helping him deal with his anxiety. She acquiesces to his need for physical release, though without enthusiasm.
It soon becomes clear that shy, self-effacing Joan has put up with a great many things while stoically performing her role as the Woman Behind the Man for more than three decades. So many, in fact, that when Close initially met Anderson to discuss the film, she first asked why Joan didn’t just stop wiping the bread crumbs from Joe’s beard and leave the bastard.
A week before filming, she convened with Pryce, Anderson and Runge in Glasgow, Scotland, where the movie was shot, and the doubts remained. Why has Joan stayed all these years? “Making her emotionally believable was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Close says. “This is a story about a very complex relationship. In fact, it seemed such a private, internal journey that it ended up feeling strange when it was first exposed to the world last year in Toronto.
“Sitting in that theater with an audience, I was astounded – and relieved – that people understood her. Because she really is a remarkable woman. She’s not passive. She’s not a victim. There’s so much more to her than that.”
Wolitzer’s novel was published in 2003. Anderson wrote her first screenplay adaptation of it a year later and has spent the subsequent years trying to get it made. (“I can’t tell you the horrible and hurtful and insulting things that men in the industry said about the script,” Anderson said.) She now thanks the “movie gods” that a film about a woman finally standing up for herself is arriving in the current #MeToo moment.
Close is happy too, though her years in the business have taught her a certain pragmatism.
“You’d like to think this cultural revolution of realizing the importance of including women and making them equal will have momentum, but I think a strong woman will always be problematic for a lot of men,” Close said. “I’ve been fighting those perceptions my whole career. And I’ll keep fighting them. What else am I going to do?”