A titled, septuagenarian spinster who can wield a double-barrel shotgun expertly – let’s perhaps scratch that opening question for Glenn Close, “What made you want to play Lady Edith de Haviland?” One tends to think fast across a velvet rope from the sweet but imperious 70 year old, and the New York premiere of her latest turn in Agatha Christie’s “Crooked House” is no exception.
Her steel-haired de Haviland grills the handsome Max Irons – yes, that Irons – across a very formal dinner table comprised of three generations of the Leonides’ family. Irons’ inspector Charles Hayward is at the Three Gables estate investigating the apparent murder of the family’s scion Aristide done in by one of Christie’s most ingenious murder weapons yet: a hot shot of insulin cooked with Leonides’ own highly toxic parasympathomimetic alkaloid cholinesterase inhibitor-rich eye drops.
When Close’s de Haviland wants to learn “what are murders like?” from Irons’ Hayward, she folds her hands and leans into the head of the elegantly laid table, prefacing her query with, “How about a blunt question for you then?” Close’s face lights up when the antecedent is repeated to her, but drops like a cake when asked if the shotgun was checking a Meryl Streep “River Wild” box on what can only be assumed to be their Ryan Murphy-ready rivalry.
“Would that I had Lady de Haviland’s shotgun now,” she counters. Point: Close. And with any other A-lister, this would have been an interview-ending question, but she is game for a few more before she continues her march down the red carpet looking chic in a long, black skirt, tuxedo jacket and an almost Moroccan smoky eye.
Streep is on the record about the rivalry, saying the two are often mistaken for one another, but that the entire thing illusory. She also points out that they somehow survived starring together in Billie August’s 1993 film “The House of the Spirits.” I point out that they reteamed for 2007’s “Evening,” but Close responds, “Ah, yes. We didn’t have any scenes together, though.”
And yes, it’s hard not to imagine the latter at least casting a sidelong glance at the three Oscars on the former’s mantle. But what’s really interesting is when the gods of split screen conspire to have them competing against one another. It happened last in 2012 when Streep’s Margaret Thatcher bested Close’s Albert Knobbs and Streep used the acceptance podium to muse, “I could hear half of America going, “Oh, no! Come on! Why her? Again?”
“Well, we both lost to Jodie Foster the last time,” Close answers when asked if, at least on that evening, she lived in that particular red state. It’s almost as if that March 1989 night when the Marquise MerteuilI remained seated happened yesterday. And it was a rivalry set to heat up again this year when Streep’s Washington Post magnate Kay Graham in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” faced off against Close’s big-screen rendering of novelist Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife until Sony pushed that release into 2018.
But a full mounting of the Glenn Close dog and pony campaign was more than five years ago for “Albert Nobbs.” It left no outlet unturned and my interview, at least, was one that included not only her turn as the cross-dressing butler of George Moore’s 1927 short story, but also an extensive overview of her career in general. So it was nice to see her back in form at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall closing out their state of TIFF Talks.
On that panel, Close cites inspiration as diverse as Dame Judi Dench and Disney’s Snow White. “Judi Dench has been my lead for my entire career,” she says. “I did my first movie and then I wanted to do a TV movie because I thought the script was fabulous. I was told that it would ruin my career in movies and I said, ‘But what about Judi Dench who has done everything her whole career?’ It’s about where the material is.”
The material, for those of you playing EGOT at home, landed Close her first of six Academy Award nominations for her big-screen debut as Nurse Jenny in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp and her first of fourteen Emmy Award nominations as the mother of a sexually abused teen in the TV movie “There’s Something About Amelia.”
“We lived in the country,” is how she classifies her Greenwich, Connecticut, childhood, “I didn’t go to a lot of movies. We did go to see the Disney classics, though, and then we roamed across the countryside pretending to be Snow White and Cinderella. And it just caught my imagination. I thought I could do that. I never questioned it, but it was probably because I didn’t want to be my sister’s sidekick anymore. I wanted to have the lead role.”
When “Nobbs” comes up, it’s not the film Close remembers, but her time on stage off Broadway in the 1982 production in the basement of Manhattan’s City Center. And the OBIE she garnered for that performance. To be fair, the theater is Close’s reference point for almost everything. She introduces her “The Wife” co-star Jonathan Pryce by saying, “Before we started working I saw him in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at the Old Globe. It’s one of the best theater performances I will see in my life.”
The theater for Close is, among other things, an arena where Streep’s single Tony Award nomination for a featured role in the 1976 revival of a lesser Tennessee Williams’ play makes her the poor woman’s Glenn Close with her three statuettes for her four times at bat, the last her luminous turn as Norma Desmond in the 1994 Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 potboiler “Sunset Boulevard.”
She even took last season’s Tony snub for her triumphant return to the role more than two decades on playing a part she was, on paper, at least, two decades too old to play. “Does one always do something to win an award?” she asked Stephen Colbert after the Tony committee deemed her performance ineligible. “Yes!” cried Colbert nodding his head vigorously, “Always!”
Choosing to see the bright side, Close replied, “It takes the pressure off. I just hope that every one of my cast members gets nominated.” They weren’t. And nominators cut Sunset’s revival category from four to three, almost to spite the blockbuster show. Variety began a #TonySoElitist rumble, but Close appeared on the telecast anyway, handing Bette Midler her award just before the latter launched into her teary-eyed, “Shut that crap off!” marathon acceptance speech.
We are, it seems, a million miles from “Crooked House” and that blustery downtown red carpet. And we haven’t even gotten to “Fatal Attraction.” Close has expertly dodged her favorite Agatha Christie novel by asking if we could circle back around to that one at the end. She does allow for Miss Marple as her favorite Christie sleuth, “but only because she’s so different from Patty Hewes.” Home EGOTS, see four Emmy nominations and two wins.
And because Patti LuPone has told the intra-chapter story of losing the lead in “Sunset Boulevard” at length, let’s close with another, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star” tale from Close’s TIFF appearance. Straight out of William & Mary’s theater program, Close was snatched by New York’s Phoenix Theater Company.
“I was hired to understudy Mary Ure in ‘Love for Love’ and Mary was let go,” Close explains. “I was put on without any rehearsal. Most understudies don’t have to know their lines until the show is opened, but I was so green and hungry, I would sit in the back of the theater and watch every rehearsal. And I learned my lines.”
“Hal Prince was directing,” she continues, “and he came in. It was a matinee and he said, ‘Glenn,’” she hitches her thumb, “’Go out onto the stage.’ Then he said, ‘I’m thinking about letting Mary go. I’ll make my decision after this performance. So go up to your dressing room and wait. If you hear that you’re wanted down in costumes, I would like you to go on that night. Can you do it?’”
“And I said, ‘Yes!’ So I went up to my little garret of a dressing room and heard the announcement. We had only one costume so I had to get into Mary’s costume and she had a very distinctive perfume. So I got into her costume and was escorted to the star dressing room.” The first thing she noticed were the nine empty hooks on the wall where pictures of Ure’s children hung.
“It was a tragedy for her that that happened,” Close says, “It was late in her career, but the extraordinary gift that she gave me was at half hour. There was a knock on my door and I was handed this note. It said, ‘It’s a tradition in the English theater for one leading lady to welcome the next. I welcome you. Be strong and brave, Mary Ure.’” Close shakes her head in disbelief. “It always astounded me that she didn’t say break a leg. She said be strong and brave and that’s basically at the heart of our tradition.”