When they open the golden envelope for best actress at the Oscars on February 26 I’m predicting a surprise winner -- Glenn Close.
Right now the smart money may be riding on Meryl Streep for her brilliant performance in The Iron Lady, a truth-be-told rather mediocre telling of the life of Margaret Thatcher, but in Albert Nobbs
Close gives the performance of her already storied career.
Close first played the role, adapted from a short story by Irish writer George Moore, on stage in New York 30 years ago. But the memory of the role always stayed with her, convincing her it would make a fine film.
Since then Close has given the last 15 years of her life to bringing Albert Nobbs to the big screen. Dream projects of that kind -- coupled with the dogged determination to see them through to completion -- are often an irresistible formula to the Oscar judges.
Ultimately it’s Close’s understated but unforgettable performance as a woman desperately trying to make it in a man’s world that could see her deservedly clinch the Best Actress Oscar this year.
Although Albert Nobbs was written in 1918 and is set in late 19th century Ireland, the battle of the sexes it portrays is as timely now as the day it was written.
Close’s character chooses to pose as a man because no woman of the period would ever be allowed the financial, spiritual and sexual freedoms she enjoys when she’s dressed up. Her deception, which Close conveys so believably you’ll be taken in yourself, lets her live out her dreams, but at a terrible personal cost.
Her Albert is in many ways the perfect servant for the Dublin hotel where he works. He spends most of the day being invisible, sometimes literally shrinking into the woodwork when his employer or the hotel’s upscale guests pass by in the long corridors. He’s often insulted, glared at by snooty customers, or literally stepped around.
What helps him to bear it is the idea that he’s tantalizingly close to having enough money to make his modest dream of opening his own little shop come true. In the 19th century things were different for women. But as Albert Nobbs reminds us, far too much has still stayed the same.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why I believed this story would have huge resonance,” Close tells the Irish Voice.
“I think sometimes it helps to separate a story from what’s happening right now, because people think that they’re safe from the kind of things that happen in the film. But I think that’s the power of this story. It’s remarkable that it was written in 1918.”
Filming in Ireland with a largely Irish cast and crew was a new and memorable experience for Close, who made her name playing the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons and the psychopathic Alex Frost in Fatal Attraction.
“What a great place to work!” she says. “It’s the whole spirit of the country. We shot through the snowstorms that shut the whole country down, so the snow you see in the film is the real blizzard of 2011. It’s all real.”
Albert Nobbs is all about the masks that people put on in order to survive. It’s why Close became fascinated with the role to begin with.
“I think the average person hides about 98 percent of what’s really going on within them. We’re masters at it. Albert Nobbs is someone whose survival depends on deception,” Close reveals.
“Deception is not an unnatural state for humans. It just becomes dire when you discover you can’t take off the mask. Or there are reasons for you to fear that if you do there will be sanctions and you will be discriminated against.”
Having played the role onstage 30 years ago and then being the first writer to tackle the screenplay was a tremendous help, she says, and a very good way to prepare to play a part.
“One thing that I am most proud of is that there are some scenes where the audience forgets what they’re looking at. You forget Hubert and Cathleen are actually two women, it doesn’t matter,” she says.
“What you know is that they have built a successful and loving relationship and a home that they have created for themselves. When Albert sees them he realizes it might be possible and it changes his life. And I love those scenes because I think that’s how it should be.”
One unforgettable scene involves Hubert (played by British actress Janet McTeer, who previously worked with co-star Brendan Gleeson on the Winston Churchill biopic Into The Storm) inviting Albert to do something in public that she hasn’t done for decades -- get gussied up and be a woman.
It turns out to be one of the most moving scenes in the film. For a few minutes we see the life Albert might have led, if there had been an option for her to stand on her own two feet, but she has made her choice and when the day ends she has to put her mask back on.
“Janet McTeer with her huge boobs and her petticoat showing, and that ridiculous bonnet on her head, it was fantastic,” says Close. “Those scenes point up how invisible Albert is.
“The viscount (played by Ireland’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a young gay man who can pay what he likes and get away with whatever he likes. His money protects him, but Albert doesn’t have that luxury.”
Brendan Gleeson plays the doctor, a man who had lived in Belfast but left because he fell in love with two women who both wanted to be the only one in his life. Worse, they meet and become friends to his detriment.
So he gets on a train and comes down to Dublin, and what he sees happening to Albert is a revelation that changes his life. He grows tired of living with secrets.
“Brendan is perfection in the role,” says Close. “Just the look he gives the Anglo Irish aristocrats when they come into the hotel at the start of the film tells you so much about him. “