Tag Archives: Glenn Close

Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs has been Glenn Close’s passion project since she performed the title role in Simone Benmussa’s play, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, in New York in 1982.  Her commitment pays off in a beautiful, starring performance in the film she co-wrote and co-produced.  With her small eyes peering out of Albert’s guarded face, Close demonstrates her sensitivity to the emotional nuances of being a woman in the late 1800s Dublin who spends her life living as a man.

Albert Nobbs is based on a novella by the Irish author George Moore.  Moore makes a brief appearance as a character in the film as a guest at Morrison’s hotel, where Nobbs works as a waiter for the preemptory, social-climbing proprietor, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins).  In Benmussa’s play, Moore narrated Albert’s story, providing a critical frame that guided spectators’ understanding of the compromises Albert had made to enable his own survival.

Here, what we learn of Albert’s past and the reasons for his life-long masquerade as a man come from stories Albert shares with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer).  Page is a housepainter with a similar life, with whom Albert is forced to share his bed for a night at the hotel.  When a bothersome flea forces Albert to strip off his clothes, he inadvertently reveals his female body to Page.

Fearful and humiliated by this exposure, the horrified Albert begs Page repeatedly through the night and the next day not to reveal the truth. When Albert’s whining becomes bothersome, Page puts down his paint brush, closes the door, and exposes his breasts to Albert, shocking him to his core.  Albert is incredulous to have met someone like him, who carries such a deep and abiding secret.  But the two passing women don’t fully share their stories until Albert seeks out Page and his wife, Cathleen, at the flat they share in the city.

Hubert Page, it turns out, fled an abusive marriage by stealing her husband’s clothes and his occupation, reinventing herself as a male house painter to make her way in the world.  She meets Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), another woman living alone, and they share a home until people’s gossip forces them to marry.  When Albert visits their cozy flat, it’s clear that Hubert and Cathleen have made a full and rich life together.  Their physical and emotional intimacy is compelling and mysterious to Albert, who can’t quite contemplate a life beyond the structured, impersonal, servile routine to which he’s disciplined himself at Morrison’s.

With Page’s encouragement, Albert begins to dream about opening a tobacco shop finding a companion of his own.  But Albert has lived unemotionally and impassively for so long, he has no idea how to court a woman or really how to interact in more than a professional manner with anyone at all.

In fact, when Page asks the waiter his name, Albert responds, “Albert.”  Page clarifies, “No, your real name.”  After a beat and a swallow, Albert says again, “Albert.”  The wrenching moment underlines their differences.  Page has recreated himself but kept his spirit intact.  Albert has become the surface of his masquerade and can no longer fathom his own depths.

The film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, provides Albert’s cross-dressed existence with a justification different from Benmussa’s adaptation.  Albert haltingly tells Page that he was raised by a foster mother, whose financial circumstances soured, forcing them to mingle with a rougher crowd than those to which Albert was accustomed.  He relates that as a young girl, he was assaulted by a gang of boys, and soon after, began passing as a male waiter.  The film implies that sexual violence turned Albert toward the gender impersonation that became his life.

By contrast, Benmussa adapted Moore’s story to demonstrate the economic forces that would compel a woman to pass as a man.  In her Brechtian, non-realist and non-psychologized play, Albert’s desperate need for economic survival explains his male attire and his single-minded devotion to counting his tips. He organizes all of his relationships according to financial necessity.

Close’s film, too, captures some of Albert’s Scrooge-like attachment to his coins, which he fingers luxuriously, records precisely in his journal, and buries under a floorboard in his room at the hotel.  When he courts Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a chambermaid at Morrison’s, he sees her as a partner for his business endeavor and little more, because he can’t conceive of a relationship that isn’t driven by the cold imperative of cash.  But that story about sexual violence makes him seem more a broken soul than someone wily enough to pass as a man to make his way.

Nonetheless, the film is a fine demonstration of gender as performance.  At a masquerade ball at Morrison’s, to which only the hotel’s guests are invited to wear costumes, the inebriated Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), who lives among the staff, asks Albert what he’s dressed as.  Confused, Albert responds, “I’m a waiter, sir,” to which the doctor replies, “And I am a doctor.  We’re both disguised as ourselves.”  The doctor has no idea how descriptive he’s been.  He finally uncovers Albert’s truth when the waiter dies from a blow to his head, suffered during an altercation with Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson), the young man with whom he vies for Helen Dawe’s affections.

Mackins provides the masculine sexual energy of Albert Nobbs, and proves the only one at Morrison’s who sniffs something off about Albert.  He tells Helen that Albert smells of money, but he intuits Albert’s lack of desire and his passion only for his cash.  Though the illiterate laborer can’t articulate the problem, Joe is the only one who sees through Albert’s charade.  That is, all except an odd-looking, nameless young boy, a guest of the hotel who stares at Albert wordlessly, and later looks at Hubert Page with the same unsettling, inarticulate knowingness.

But the mores of late-1800s Dublin are so constrained that none of the others would ever suspect that a person who looks like a man in fact is not.  For instance, when Cathleen dies of typhoid fever, Albert and Hubert venture out costumed as women, wearing the dresses that Cathleen made as a kind of tribute to her life.  In their experiment with nostalgia, they look awkward and ridiculous.  Page’s dress is too small for the tall and bulky guy; his long arms stick out of the sleeves and the dress fails to conceal his painters’ boots, in which he lumbers along the Dublin streets.  In his bonnet and skirt, Albert, too, looks silly and strange.

But a man passing them in the lane tips his hat to Hubert and Albert anyway, reading femininity from their dresses regardless of their inadequate gender performances.  As Judith Butler would argue, the surface enactment is enough to signal gender, which for Hubert and Albert, if not for all of us, has no depth anyway.  Watching the film, I had so accustomed myself to Albert and Hubert’s utterly persuasive gender performances that despite what I knew, their outing as women seemed sad and pathetic.

This moment of female impersonation wasn’t part of Benmussa’s play, and makes an uneasy addition to the story.  Close plays Albert in that scene as entranced with his feminine attire, despite his clumsiness with its draping.  Albert and Page walk on the beach in their women’s wear, and Albert suddenly seems to feel free.  His bonnet falls onto his back and he runs ahead of Page, arms stretched out, catching the wind in his hair.

Page looks on, amused.  For him, femininity has long lost its interest or its necessity.  His grief over Cathleen’s death means his feminine impersonation is more about wearing things she touched than remembering his long-cast-off womanhood.  After their brief beach venture, both men return to their workers’ clothing, resuming the costumes of lives they can’t be without.

Close and McTeer are utterly affecting in their performance of the men’s halting friendship. Albert can barely express himself; throughout the film, he casts his gaze down or away, rarely making eye contact. Watching Close slowly move Albert’s eyes to meet Hubert’s is a study in courage and need. And yet what we see is the shadow of a man, whose excitement is kindled not by emotional connection but by the possibility of rearranging her living situation to improve her economics.

Cathleen’s death provides an opportunity for Albert. He suggests that he replace Cathleen in Hubert’s home, so that they can keep their expenses low and live reasonably. Hubert protests, “But I loved her,” an emotion unintelligible to Albert.

Likewise, when he courts Helen Dawes, she’s frustrated and insulted that Albert plans to marry her without even venturing to kiss her. Startled by her complaint, Albert obliges by pecking her cheek, sending Helen running back to the virile if corrupt Joe Mackins.

Albert, in other words, is a bit of a fool at Morrison’s. When he’s not working, he sits on the landing between floors, looking up and down, scheming about his future and making notes about his money. Benmussa’s dialogue notes that Albert is neither up nor down, neither here nor there, a physical representation of his refusal to inhabit binary gender categories. Close sits on the landing in the film, too, but without the critical comment of the play, he seems simply strange.

The film, however, can paint the lives around Albert with richer contrasting detail. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a viscount who arrives at Morrison’s with an entourage of friends and women to drink and have sex. Mrs. Baker enables their assignations, and their unfettered heterosexual energy permeates the place. Even Mrs. Baker flirts with the doctor shamelessly, though he’s having an affair with another of the chambermaids.

Only Albert has no place in the hotel’s network of sexual intrigue. When Helen finds herself pregnant and she and Joe fight about their future, Albert tries to rescue her by offering to take care of her and the child. For his chivalry, Joe pushes him violently and he falls into the hallway wall, giving Albert the head injury that kills him. He dies alone, his money buried under his floor, where Mrs. Baker finds it and uses it to employ Hubert to paint her entire hotel.

The doctor who finds Albert shakes his head over the miserable circumstances in which people live. Albert’s death inspires him to change his own life; he runs off with his chambermaid and leaves Morrison’s Hotel. Helen has her baby, which she names Albert. And Hubert paints the hotel where his friend died, carrying with him the secret of Hubert’s sex and his own.

The film is smart and sweet, sad and atmospheric.  If it doesn’t pack quite the intellectual and political punch of Benmussa’s play, at least Albert Nobbs lets us watch Close and McTeer in performances that should compel conversation about what it means to inhabit the strictures of gender.  The difference between Close as, for only one example, Patty Hewes in her starring television role on Damages, in which she plays a female lawyer as manipulative shark, and Close as Albert, in his furtive, rigid performance of masculinity, tells us a lot not just about Close’s talent as an actor, but about how masculinity and femininity are always just constructions.

On the other hand, the film’s most wrenching moment is when Albert rips open her shirt to scratch that flea and reveals her breasts encased in a girdle. The way Close gathers her shirt and her covers her breasts, as if she’s trying to make them and herself disappear, illustrates her painful body shame. By contrast, when Hubert unbuttons his jacket and opens it wide to show Albert his bountiful, unfettered breasts, he demonstrates a lovely ease with the contradictions of his female flesh and his masculine self.

Albert Nobbs does a fine job of narrating the gains and losses incurred along the continuum the two characters represent. With its close-in cinematography and Dublin street sets that offer little hint of an “outside” to this late nineteenth century world, Albert Nobbs clarifies how history and society constrain possibilities for gender performance. For that alone, as well as the pleasure of Close’s and McTeer’s masterful performances, Albert Nobbs is an important and worthy pleasure.

The Feminist Spectator

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Damages

The latest season of Damages on FX ended with a 90-minute finale that somehow managed to wrap up all the season’s loose narrative threads and even some of last season’s, for good measure. With rumors that Damages has been losing viewership and might not be renewed, the finale might be the last time we’ll see Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, the wily, steely lawyer who even though this season was working for the good guys, always manages to seem like she’s on the wrong side of the law.

Despite a snarky column in Salon.com not long ago that suggested none of the women acting onDamages can move their foreheads, I don’t think Botox has reduced the power of Close’s acting. She might not be able to disturb her forehead’s preternatural smoothness, but Patty has always been a character whose unruffled demeanor is part of her chilly allure.

Close plays Patty Hewes with her mouth: that straight line her lips form when she’s resolved, that wrinkle that sneaks into her upper lip when she sneers, the way she opens her lips to various extents to indicate other nuances of Hewes’s not very wide range of emotion . . . these small things let Close evoke this ball-busting woman’s tremendous power.

Even her eyes don’t really seem to change from moment to moment, although when she watches those opaque flashbacks that kept popping up this season play out behind the hole she punched in her condo’s wall, she sometimes tears up a bit. But the water never, ever trickles down her face—she’s way too controlled for that.

Patty Hewes is one of my favorite television heroines, not because she’s fun to hate—on the contrary, I like Patty for how horrible she is, for how willing she is to jettison all the pieties about women and all the conventional presumptions about appropriate gender roles. Last season, after she caught her husband (Michael Nouri) cheating on her, she discarded him from her life in a rage-full fury.

But as they shared custody of their old dog (and of course their teenage son, Michael), the couple began to spend relaxed, casual time together again, which lead the man to think perhaps he had another chance with Patty. No such luck. Just as her husband began to feel comfortable in her presence, and entitled to the forgiveness that unfaithful men these days seem to expect, Patty turned her always ready knife and kicked him bleeding back to the curb.

One of the series’ highlights has been that it’s women, not men, who have the only chance of rattling Patty’s proverbial cage. Her relationship with Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), her protégé, nemesis, and perhaps daughter-substitute, hinges on their distinctly homoerotic attraction/repulsion for one another. Ellen began the series as ambitious but naïve, and wound up losing her fiancé, David, in the bargain. (He was viciously murdered for convoluted reasons that still aren’t clear, even though the finale revealed who killed him—which we already knew by now.)

David’s murder hardened Ellen and forced her to hone her own killer instincts. With Patty to emulate, she learned at the feet of the master. The two women have taken turns playing cat and mouse in each episode this season, with Ellen’s loyalties never quite clear. Her stint as an assistant district attorney was marred by her own perverse willingness to bend the law for her own gain.

She set Patty and the District Attorney (an always disappointed, cynical Ben Shenkman) against each other, insisting she was scheming for one while appearing to scam the other, and vice versa.Neither of them trusted Ellen, but where the DA found her machinations abhorrent, Patty couldn’t help but admire the monster she created.

The new female lawyer Patty hired this season couldn’t hold a candle to Ellen, even though she was clearly willing to drink the blood Patty spilled around the firm. Patty hired the woman capriciously, and fired her just as impulsively, drifting into a reverie during their last meeting that ended with Patty telling the astonished young woman that it “wasn’t working out,” that she should empty her desk and leave the building. Patty’s mercurial affections kept her staff and her family on edge, wary, watchful, but aware they could never catch her with her guard down.

Pity her son Michael’s girlfriend, Jill, for instance, the significantly older woman who seduces the young man when he’s really just a boy. Jill thinks she can play Patty’s game, and exhorts her for $500,000, pretending she’s willing to be paid off to get out of Michael’s life. When Jill stays, spending the money to buy Michael a Jaguar and the two of them a three-bedroom apartment big enough for their soon-to-arrive baby, Jill gloats that she can play hard ball just like Patty.

Fat chance. By the finale’s end, Patty sends Jill to prison for statutory rape, forcing the woman to relinquish her parental rights to Michael’s child forever. Patty always gets what she wants, even if her son retaliates by trying to kill her with a borrowed car.

This season’s plot followed the Bernie Madoff story’s template, creating a parallel family called the Tobins, whose patriarch runs a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme (it turns out) to protect his ne’er-do-well son, Joe, who’s a drunk and a failure at his father’s business. In characteristically labyrinthine narrative turns, the show led viewers in one direction only to pull us instantly in another, as we tried to fix the blame and responsibility for the corruptions that pollute the Tobin’s lives and that haunt the vulture-like lawyers who circle them ever more tightly.

Patty represented the families whose lives were ruined by the Ponzi scheme, but even on the side of righteousness, Patty’s sleazy methods make her look villainous. Ellen played her own angles in the DA’s office, and Patty’s law partner Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) was implicated on both sides, since he lost his family’s and his in-laws’ fortunes in the Tobin’s house of cards. Once Louis Tobin’s scheme was revealed, the three principles worked through a series of feints and punches to track down the money they knew the family had stashed away.

The story’s impenetrability makes it difficult to track, but the details hardly matter, since the characters created this season proved fascinating whether or not their motivations and objectives were crystal clear. Impeccably cast (by the Emmy Award-winning casting director Julie Tucker), the Tobin family modeled the peccadilloes of the fabulously wealthy and corrupt. As the dissolute son, Joe, Campbell Scott beautifully played the man’s Oedipal complex and his determination to head his family at all costs, despite his own utter inability to do anything right.

Len Cariou (who starred in Sweeney Todd on Broadway) played Louis Tobin, who ended the season as a hero, even though he took his own life early on to escape his prison sentence. The incomparable Lily Tomlin played the Tobin matriarch, Marilyn, the dyed-red-haired Machiavellian wife and mother who will do anything to maintain the standard of living to which she’s become accustomed. She, too, was prone to the underhanded wheeling and dealing that distinguished her family’s business.

The information she revealed and withheld had much to do with who lived and died this season. In her own final act of volition [spoiler alerts to follow here and below!!], she sat sodden with alcohol and amused herself by watching old family movies, then, without a trace of self-pity, took a taxi to the East River. In the next moment, we saw, in an extreme long shot, her body falling from a high bridge to the water below.

The final agent of the Tobin family’s destruction was their trusted lawyer, Leonard Winstone, played against type by a clenched-jawed Martin Short. Turns out that Lenny, too, had been living a lie; the kid from a bad family in straitened circumstances stole a new identity and passed himself off as a lawyer. Although we never got the details, we learned that he’s spent 30 years conniving and advising the Tobins.

When his weasel of a father turned up to blackmail him, threatening to reveal his fraud, Winstone uses the old man to turn against the Tobins. Through a lucky quirk of fate, in the gory finale, Winstone managed to walk away with his life and a good chunk of the family’s money.

The series’ wrap-up was a bit too pat, as though the producers knew the episode might be the show’s last. Plot points that seemed dense and complex for the last 13 weeks were resolved too obviously, easily, and quickly, which made the last show a bit of an anti-climactic disappointment. Tom Shayes’s death was the only one that lived up to its hype, since we’ve known almost from the first episode that he dies at the end.

In Damages’ typically frenetic flash-forward and -back structure, which made all but the most salient details difficult to absorb and the timeline impossible to track, the detectives investigating Shayes’ murder insinuated variously that Patty, Ellen, and others were to blame.

The season’s best reveal was that Joe murdered Tom for endangering the Tobin family’s future and its fortune. After a day of public drinking from a brown-paper-bagged bottle, Joe showed up at Tom’s house, beat him up, and then drowned the already-bleeding man in his own toilet. The scene’s gruesome camera work and editing focused on Shayes’s feet, kicking and twisting, his shoulders pinned over the toilet’s bowl, his head deep in its well. Scott performed virtuosically as the drunken, out-of-control, utterly inept and misguided Joe, shaking his head vigorously to try to clear it as he methodically disposed of Tom’s body.

But when Joe is brought in to the police station at the end, it’s Patty who interviews him, who revels in forcing him to accept certain truths. She turns off the intercom into the adjacent viewing room while she cajoles Joe to admit his guilt. When Ellen asks how she got him to divulge to his crimes, Patty says cryptically that they talked about confession, implying that she made a connection with the shattered man based on shared spiritual burdens. Many key moments like this were also treated cavalierly, even though they had inspired deep speculation and curiosity throughout the season.

Damages’s last scene took place by the ocean, outside the city, where Patty and Ellen attended Tom’s memorial service. The two women stood together at the end of a long wooden pier, windswept physically and emotionally, staring out into the water, their faces as impassive as ever.Ellen told Patty she wants to ask her a professional question, which got the older woman’s attention. As Patty turned toward her, Ellen said Patty’s achieved everything she ever wanted in her career. The younger woman asked what Patty thinks Ellen’s next move should be; should Ellen come back to work for Patty? Work in another firm? Leave the law altogether?

Patty didn’t answer immediately, and for some reason, the women began to talk about Patty’s first child, a daughter who was stillborn. Ellen knew about the child, but not why she died. Patty said that losing the child, although difficult, enabled her to take a job at a New York law firm, where she was the first woman ever hired, and was able to begin her inexorable climb to the top.

In one last revelation, it turned out that the cryptic flashbacks Patty had all season when she looked through the ragged hole in her apartment’s wall—which were somehow related to David Carradine’s mysterious, brief appearance this season—turned out to be from 1972, when Patty was first pregnant. Her pregnancy had complications, and her doctor ordered her to stay on complete bed rest. But in the flashback, we saw Patty ignoring her doctor’s admonishments and walking—heavily pregnant—down the long lane of a horse farm where, presumably, she rides, and lost the child (who’s perversely named—Julia—given that she arrived stillborn).

Ellen wants to know if it’s worth it, what Patty’s done to realize her brilliant career. When Ellen posed her question, we saw Patty flash to an image of herself, distraught, wiping leaves and dirt from Julia’s gravestone and keening like Medea. When the brief image faded, Patty stood still on the dock, struck mute. Ellen watched her for a moment, then murmured good-bye and walked away. As Ellen left, Patty turned to watch her disappear down the dock.

Although they didn’t meet one another’s gaze in this scene or many others, the two women were profoundly and desperately, wordlessly and knowingly connected, Ellen as the daughter Patty terminated, now enlivened and eroticized by Patty’s own longing.

What a shame, though, that such a vivid three-season portrait of a powerful, compelling, untraditional woman had to end on such a banal, predictable note. Damages proposed that Patty sacrificed her child to pursue a career that she couldn’t, in the end, say was worth it. To damn this fascinating, gender-perverse woman as finally just a “bad mother” ends what was a fun, Grand Guignol series with a conservative, moralizing kicker.

Consigning a woman who’s better at being a lawyer than she is at being a mother to the purgatory of regret and maternal sorrow is a cheap shot, an easy way out for a series that always did seem to be more complicated than it turned out to be. If Damages returns for a fourth season, I hope Patty and Ellen can proceed into their mutually corrupt, ruthless future without worrying about the kids they left behind or never had.

The Feminist Spectator

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