Glenn Close is giving the performance of her career in The Wife which is based on the Meg Wolitzer novel. Directed by Bjorn Runge, the film is a cunningly claustrophobic literary drama about a woman who channels herself through her novelist husband and his allowing her to do so, a gem of a movie which is, in fact, as sturdy and hard as a gemstone put under a cutting tool to grind it down to the appearance of something more precious than it really is. The movie doesn’t quite rise to Close’s performance but it glistens enough to let her wear it and wow us. It catches the light of her own stardom.
And what a singular stardom it has been even as it is often compared to her contemporary, Meryl Streep. In some ways, Glenn Close has played “the wife” role to Streep in their parallel careers. They have been thought of in tandem. Yet Streep has been nominated for a record 21 Academy Awards and won three. Close holds the record instead for most nominations of any living actress who has not won the award: six. (The others who have been nominated six times without winning were Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter.). But Streep has only been nominated for one Tony which was back in 1976 for her Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’s 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Close, on the other hand, has hewed closer to the stage throughout her career and has been nominated for four Tonys and won three. She was first nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Barnum but lost out to Priscilla Lopez in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. She won the Tony for Best Actress for both The Real Thing and Death and the Maiden as well as Best Actress in a Musical for her glorious performance of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
I have not only seen all those stage performances but have also shared a stage with Close back in 1978 in the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Crucifer of Blood at the original Helen Hays Theatre on Broadway. Glenn was the only woman in the cast in which I had two small parts. One was a southern sailor in the last scene that sets up Holmes’ next mystery. For the other part, I was elaborately wrapped as a mummy who emerges from a wooden sarcophagus after having been shot to fall dead at the feet of Holmes (don’t ask). The rest of that scene took place as I lay dead on stage waiting for the scene change when I’d exit and exchange my mummy rags for my more revealing sailor’s uniform. One night I smelled a bit of smoke as I lay onstage and suddenly I was being dragged offstage. My mummy’s rags had caught fire from the spark of the prop gun going off and I was about to go up in flames. Glenn was waiting offstage for one of her entrances and she took off the cape from her Victorian costume and began to pound me with it to smother the flames. Though the crack in my mummy’s rags I looked up to see her giving me that Glenn Close smile that has come to define so many of her roles ever since. It is a smile that announces – a sly slide across her face, a crack of her own in any character she plays – that she knows that she is not the one aflame. Oh, she can ignite. There is a smoothness to her smolder. But flaming is not something that comes to mind when one describes a Glenn Close performance. Even her Norma Desmond was embedded deep down – aglow – in the embers.
There is the thrill and thrust of instinct in her performances. She studied with Harold Guskin who encouraged his students to focus on the words of the text over character motivation. “It all started with the words,” Close told The New York Times when she spoke to the paper after Guskin’s death this past summer. “You say them once and you say them again and again, and each time you say them, more is revealed.” Guskin authored a book about the freedom found in his non-technique and titled it How to Stop Acting. He claimed that acting was based on three things: feelings, imagination, and improvisation. There is a child’s play quality to his own instincts about acting, but child’s play parented by the responsible, caring artist.
“I don’t think I’ve ever grown up and I don’t think I ever will,” Close told The Hollywood Reporter, sitting in on an acting roundtable. “One of my favorite books about acting is by Richard Eyre, called Utopia and Other Places. He spent years directing at the National Theatre and has great respect for the process of actors,” she said, mentioning the theatre where she played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in 2002. “Laurence Olivier once said, ‘If you scratch an actor — you’ll find an actor!’ But Eyre disagrees: If you scratch an actor, you’ll find a child. It’s not that they’re childish, but you have to maintain a certain openness, and if you don’t maintain that, you lose something vital as an actor. It’s how we’re wired, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing … I love actors. I call myself an actress. Why call myself an actor? That was back when it was all about being feminist. But I call all of us an alien nation and I love my fellow actors. You go to some terrible play, some off-off-Broadway play and you see somebody being not very good, and I love them even more. It takes a certain type of bravery.”
Yes. That’s it. There’s a valor to Glenn Close. I hope she’s awarded for it on Oscar night.