Albert Nobbs star Glenn Close on the irrelevance of gender
By Katherine Monk
Glenn Close is not a man. And she is not gay. But she so fully assumes the bizarre form of an Irish woman who hides her sex beneath stiff collars and black suits in the new film Albert Nobbs, that you have to recalibrate all notions of gender by the final credits.
Close says that was pretty much the whole idea behind bringing her Obie-winning role to the screen: “Gender is irrelevant. It basically should be irrelevant.”
Based on the short story by George Moore, which was then adapted to the stage, and then into screenplay format with help from Oscar-winning Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (Mephisto), Albert Nobbs takes us into the upper rooms of a Dublin hotel in the 19th century, where there was little wiggle room for personal sexual expression — especially for the working class.
Close plays the titular Nobbs, a woman who found life just a little too threatening without binding her breasts and wearing men’s shoes. It’s an odd part, and an odd story, she acknowledges, but even three decades after assuming the men’s mantle off-Broadway, the power of the plot continued to resonate — forcing her to spend the last 15 years of her life bringing it to the big screen.
“I bought the material,” she says. “I optioned it for years until it went into public domain.”
She says the project lingered without action until she collaborated with Szabo, whom she worked with on Meeting Venus. She then had a film script, and the first piece of what would become a very long, difficult puzzle to finally assemble.
She says Szabo understood the core ideas within the original novella, because he’d lived in Hungary under the regime. “He said he understood the story because … we all change our faces. What face do you put [on] in order to survive?”
Because it has universal threads, Close knew it had the potential to reach a broad audience. But because she played the part on stage, in a minimal production with little more than a few props, she also experienced the poignancy of the plot first-hand.
“I knew the power of the story: It blindsided people every night. It was a minimalist production … [but] I saw the effects of that story every night, and I always believed that, for all its strangeness, when I started thinking about it as a film, that it would actually be very effective,” says Close.
“People were very moved, very emotional, very stunned,” she says.
Looking decidedly more glam, and far more femme, than her movie alter ego as she sits in a Toronto hotel suite for the film’s festival press day, Close says turning herself into a somewhat asexual male for the duration of the shoot was a sensation unlike any other.
“You know the character is so different, and, for an actress, very challenging. The challenge was enticing,” says the 63-year-old. “Onstage, I had no makeup, just a short wig. It was much harder to do it on film.”
Aided by some minimal prosthetics and makeup, Close says every time she looked into a mirror during the shoot, she didn’t recognize herself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re taking on a new character, who wears a different style of shoe than your own. (On this day, Close is wearing a dainty kitten heel with dark denim.)
“I loved every minute [I played Albert]. I really did. I loved it, and every morning when they finished putting that face on me, I still didn’t recognize myself. It was a shock to look at this person. And I loved that person, and she became Albert.
“It was a privilege to play her. There is something noble about Albert. In her naivete, she’s a believer, but without the tools, there is something heartbreaking about her. But you also love people who have that belief, and even if they don’t succeed, you have to respect the attempt.”
Close clearly respects all the characters, and all the actors — including Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers —but she says she was completely blown away by co-star Janet McTeer’s performance as Hubert, another woman in men’s clothing who shows her a thing or two about gender deviance and the broad range of possibilities that comes with it.
“The film offers two examples of how these people survived,” says Close. “Albert survived by making herself invisible, and just stopping there — basically just existing, you know, counting her money as she goes from one task to the next.”
Hubert offers a different view of survival: “She is surviving on her own terms. She realizes … that’s who she is. And I just loved Janet’s performance; it was just so f–king ballsy. I always loved Hubert, but I never saw her as this kind of street bloke, and that last scene is so complex and she is so compelling: She’s incredibly strong in the image of a man, but she’s a woman.”
Close certainly doesn’t lack cojones, either. Ever since she entered the public consciousness in the screen adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp, as the nurse who mounts a comatose patient in order to conceive, she has cut a brave swath through the movie landscape.
She says she has no fear of the sexual taboo, or becoming a lesbian icon. “I thought I already was a lesbian icon,” she says. “Remember, I played [gay armed forces Colonel] Margarethe Cammermeyer."
“I’ve put on many faces in the characters that I play. So, in some ways, you could say I have, I suppose, [put on a face] in order to survive,” she says. “But life is so much harder than work.”
Close says Albert Nobbs was a labour of love, so just about everything it involved was joyful, and she hopes people will be able to derive the same profound sense of meaning from the movie as she gleaned from her 15-year odyssey bringing it to the screen.Close says we’re still living in a society where this is still taking place.
“I really I hope it engenders a lot of conversation, because I believe there are a lot of people who put on faces. We all we do it, every time we walk out the door. And there are a lot of people who have to hide who they are. And I think this story speaks to that,” she says.
“I am not gay … but I feel very comfortable in the company of everybody, not just gay people. But I honestly believe that gay rights of the rights of people with mental illness are the last big issue.”
Some people will change their point of view, and those who are either too old, or too blinkered, to accept the beauty of difference will just have to “die off,” she says.
Albert Nobbs plays the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was acquired by Entertainment One for Canadian release, but no theatrical date has been announced at this time.