Glenn Close has the most beautiful eyes. They’re simple blue-green. But what powers her look is the bright and clear blue line around each, which softens and hardens with the inflections in her speech, underlining what she says. She is 55 and looks fantastic in red alligator skin, elegantly plat formed, toeless high heels, beige denim jacket, jeans and a white rugby shirt. She is lean and compact. It’s such a cliché, but at five foot four or five, she really is far smaller than she appears on screen. It is the characters she plays who occupy the space. The word to describe her is definitely handsome. Her face is fresh and open, rather country girl, so you could also say pretty. But pretty is too girlish. Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liasons and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard to chose but three of her signature roles are not girlish. Glenn Close is an actress who plays grown-ups.
So surrounding her London theatre debut there is much anticipation because she has chosen one of the great American roles, a role, she says, “You simply test yourself with – certainly in America”. She will open at the National Theatre in October as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Created by Vivien Leigh on the London stage in 1949 and on film opposite Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in 1951, Blanche has always seemed to reflect Leigh’s own alcoholism and vulnerability. A diaphanous creature blown to seek refuge in New Orleans by the wind of small hometown disapproval, she is bullied by Stanley and eventually committed to the impersonal care of the madhouse by her regretful sister. Williams introduces her in the stage directions by saying ”her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.”
However, you suspect that Closes’s Blanche will be more of a tiger moth – more colour and more feistiness underlying her terrible vulnerability. “Williams calls her that in one of his essays”, says Close, “ and I think she is quite elemental. It’s very premature to talk about her, but what moves me about Blanche is what moved me about Norma Desmond. They are both delusional but they are both survivors and they have to create those illusions to survive.” Blanche has seen a lot of death in her family but most searingly burnt into her memory is the suicide of her young, and gay, husband. “She could have killed herself. But she carries on. With Stanley it comes down to such a physical confrontation. She is as charismatic as Stanley is and witty and ballsy” says Close. Her Blanche will be no trembling wreck. As Trevor Nunn, who’s directing her, says “To make sense of the play, Blanche has to be a mixture of both intellect and passion”.
Close always wanted to be an actress ever since she was tiny. “From my very, very early childhood, we had the most extraordinary piece of land to run on. We could run all day and not see anyone we weren’t related to. So my childhood was literally playing games that we would imagine – always playing pretend”. ‘We’ was her two sisters and her brother. They grew up on a farm in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her father, a doctor, and her mother – William and Bettina – both came from the kind of smart upper-class Yankee backgrounds that their daughter’s fine face would suggest. Stephen Frears, when he directed Dangerous Liasons, fell completely under its spell. Last week he said “Maybe her family came over on the Mayflower. I mean you can see in her face what a strong women she is. You can sort of see what those people who built America were made of. Incredible strength. Of a benign kind. She’s a class racehorse. You’re not dealing with some yob!“
I don’t really know”, she says now, “how that game playing segued into acting. I think it was just something I thought I could do”. Then when she was seven her parents, to whom it is important to realise she remains very close, made quite a decision. They joined the right-wing Christian group Moral Rearmament and set off for “a quasi-religious commune” in Mt Kisco, New York. They moved again to Switzerland where she completed her eighth and ninth grades and then her father went as a missionary to the Belgian Congo, now Zaire. At that point Close returned to Greenwich for High School. All this was in an interview she gave earlier this year.
So knowing it from the research, I wondered whether this sudden uprooting played a part in her desire and ability to be an actress, her growing up into a woman who longed to earn her living using her imagination? “I don’t want to talk about that”. Oh. It’s fascinating. “It’s too complex. And I am not a psychiatrist. So I am not going to sit here and analyse myself. I find that deeply boring.” She’s pretty annoyed. It’s quite scary. That’s not because she’s suddenly become the grand guignol Cruella de Vil or the damaged revenger Alex Forrest. It’s just ordinary Glenn Close surprisingly vulnerable and demonstrably hurt.
“They’ll drag up all that ancient press about something that happened years ago and I don’t want to talk about it.” Silence. You begin to realise how raw she is. How close to the surface her emotions swiftly rise. How you can almost feel the heat of her upset. “I’m going to end this right now”. She starts to rise from her chair. It’s not a flounce. She has said before that she didn’t want to talk about her private life. I thought she meant men and dating and sex and all that trivia. No. She meant this. Her family. “I feel as if I’ve been mislead. And you know I have moved ON from that.” It’s said quietly but with such force. Then, silence.
In the interview she gave to the American magazine, which she has read and thinks entirely accurate and which she hopes, rather in vain, will be the last of people’s interest in the matter, she defends her parents’ decision. “The thing I love about my parents is that, coming from a level of society where they basically had quite a bit, they never bought into that. I think their humanism, their idealism got taken advantage of.” In his book, A Doctor’s Life, still available, William expresses regret about his choices and the pain they caused his children. Close simply writes in the introduction “What family doesn’t have its quota of pain? The burden of forgiveness is always with the child. The parent is always going to make the mistakes.”
At the very end of our conversation she explains her decision not to talk about it any more in an intense voice that is difficult to hear at times. “You can’t sit down in an interview like this and talk about something like that. It’s a book. I love my family dearly and I don’t feel obligated to keep bringing them up.” She thinks a while before she speaks again and says a little surprised at herself, “I’ve never walked out of an interview.” Another pause, “It’s difficult for my alien kind” – I imagine she means actors – “because I basically trust everybody. Unfortunately I’ve now learned not to trust everybody. They can crucify you and it’s terribly hurtful.” I guess what comes as a surprise is that you don’t think of her as naive. But in some ways she is, notwithstanding her obvious intelligence. Perhaps as she says of Blanche, it’s just that “she is very highly tuned”.
So we move on. Close is well known to be a political liberal. She has been public in her support for the pro-choice lobby and other women’s’ issues. However on one particular occasion her artless outspokenness caused her considerable upset. In 1992 she produced a documentary on the American foster care system called Broken Hearts, Broken Homes. It was the second factual film she’d made, following on from one in 1988 about cowboys in Wyoming whom she had met with her father on his doctor’s rounds. In the course of the filming she went to see a unique prison experiment with mothers and their children in Bedford Correctional Facility in New York State. There she met a woman called Precious Bedell, who was serving twenty years for killing her own child in 1979. By the nineties, Precious had qualified in psychology and was working in the prison nursery. But Close didn’t realise she was still a prisoner.
“I thought she was a social worker. In my ignorance I didn’t realise that if you were wearing a certain kind of trousers in a certain kind of green you were an inmate. I only realised when we left that she wasn’t coming too. It’s only my experience in this one prison, and I can’t and wouldn’t pretend to be an expert, but I have met some of the most enlightened women inside, if they have been there for a long time and have actually faced their crime, gone to the black space, gone to hell and come back.”
Close wrote a letter to the Clemency Board on Bedell’s behalf and was mauled in the New York Press. The Post snarled ‘Glen Close wants tot killer freed’. “I was absolutely savaged,” she says, “But I just thought that Precious would be more use outside than in. But because I was the only high profile person who wrote to the press, it got incredibly distorted. They said I lived behind closed doors and locked gates, which I don’t. I could afford to protect my child. It was just really horrible.” Bedell was eventually released, not as a result of any of the letters as it happens, but because of a technicality relating to her trial. She is now working with an organisation helping to rehabilitate women out of prison.
Close was shaken by the experience. “I don’t really see myself as political. I have always spoken from my heart. But sometimes that gives me pause because I think you could study things for twenty fours hours a day for a month and not have it at the end of my fingertips. But then I think what my father said ‘it’s the act of presence, just being there, that counts’. You can have an opinion. You think something’s wrong you can say it. You may not be the spokesman, it doesn’t mean your feelings are invalid if you are inarticulate.” She is a participator. She gets that from her parents. Hal Prince, the legendary director who’s known her since the mid seventies, describes her as “an involved citizen”. She carries that East Coast American upper class sense of civic obligation. “We are the kind of people who feel guilty if we say no” she says. “When my daughter says ‘I don’t care’ I tell her those are the three worst words in the language.”
It seems odd to think of Close as inarticulate. She is one of that breed of classy American actresses who as Frears says, “is clever enough to know how to operate on her emotions. She has the intelligence to operate on that grand level and pull off these very big moments on the screen”. Nunn, Frears and Prince, who directed her in her first play in New York Love For Love, all speak of her in the same way. “Educated”, “smart”, “brave”, they all echo each other. “She knows how to make choices in her career”, says Prince, “that’s what sets her apart.” And they all cite the self-assurance that flows from her background. “Her emotions are close to the surface”, comments Prince, “because she is sure of who she is. And her background has created the kind of person who is simply not bewildered or bedazzled by stardom.”
She herself dismisses any talk of braininess. While on screen she displays a fierce intelligence, she says, “I am certainly not an intellectual.” And as for being brave she meandered around the subject in our conversation and concluded “When I am faced with the challenge of acting, it’s always the same thing. I go through this terrible process of thinking I don’t know where to begin. I was chatting to Trevor the other day and saying that if I was in the same room as Jenny Fields (The World According to Garp), The Marquise, Alex Forrest, although maybe not as much, Blanche and Norma Desmond, I would be incredibly shy.”
What strikes you forcibly though is not that Close seems shy, but that she seems disinterested by the hoopla that surrounds what she does. On screen she is certainly grand. But you should know that every day she travels to work at The National Theatre on the tube. Stephen Frears’s parting shot was that he has seen her “scrubbing floors at other people’s houses. She’s just the sort of person who gets on with it. Like lots of women, she’s just very practical.” Hal Prince makes considerable play of the fact that “her background has created the kind of person who is simply not bewildered or bedazzled by stardom.”
When the part of Norma Desmond came up, Trevor Nunn, who directed her in Sunset Boulevard, recounts with respect, “She came to London to audition. She was just standing there around a piano in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s house. This very, very famous person. We didn’t know if her voice stylistically or in terms of her range would match the score. In the end we didn’t have to change anything, because she recognised that there was another step her voice needed to go and she worked and worked and it did go that next step. She just puts in the work.” It paid off and the reviews and the unanimous acclaim for her performance lifted her onto an even higher level as a stage actress.
Close has portrayed a dazzling range of women, all with their own particular atmosphere of strength. Then with Cruella de Vil, in which she ended up buried in flour, squirted with icing and baked in a cake, she chose to send up that career. She laughed at herself through two Dalmation movies trying as hard as possible to have as much fun by putting as much real fear into children as she could. She has said she just felt the meaner she was the funnier it became. To anyone who has followed her career, to go from Norma Desmond to Cruella in one move is a sure sign that this is a woman who likes a laugh. “I’m not witty”, she says, but I know people who are and I can hold my own.” All three directors independently used the same phrase. She “hoots with laughter”, they all said.
Of course playing Cruella further showed her versatility. It was a typical move. Prince explodes on the phone “That’s what’s so great about her. I think ‘My God look what Glenn is doing NOW’”. But in the eyes of sloppy writers she has often suffered from a tendency to stereotype her as just the bunny-boiler, Alex, in Fatal Attraction. Even though she made the film in 1978, Close still analyses her. “I researched that part more than any other. Alex Forrest was a textbook example of a woman who had been abused pre-memory. That’s why she throws up when she is spying through the window on Michael Douglas’ character and his family. What would someone have forced me (Alex) to do? Oral sex when you were a child would make you sick. ” She is at pains to understand Alex, not put her down. She feels strongly that despite her efforts in the end the film failed overall to do that. The script finally just flipped her into being a psychopath. That was a betrayal of the character. She was deeply self-destructive. That was the point.”
Her performance not only made her a film star but also won her the part of The Marquise in Dangerous Liasons. Frears just thought she was “simply astounding” in Fatal Attraction. “She was like an athlete prowling around. American actresses can deliver on that grand level. The power they have on the screen is phenomenal”. She started filming just seven weeks after she had given birth to her daughter Annie on April 26th 1988. After two marriages, one when she was very young to a rock guitarist called Cabot Wade and one in the mid-eighties to an investment banker, James Marlas, for whom she seems to have retained little affection and which had ended a year or so earlier, she was at the start of a relationship with a producer called John Starke. “When she arrived” says Frears, “the birth was giving her enormous pleasure not just because of the baby, but because her breast were very large, which excited her a lot. “ Frears found her not just to be sexy and intelligent but “very straight with the audience. She doesn’t conceal things.”
Close stripped the Marquise’s emotions bare in the film, never backing off from showing her power and cunning yet also exposing her vulnerability and at times sheer rage. The Marquise seems to have paid a price for being a powerful woman. “Madame Merteuil observed at a very early age” says Close, talking over my question in a manner almost as controlling as the character, “how men operate, how love and sex became political. And she decided to become just as manipulative as a man might be.” Close chose the role because of the great speech The Marquise makes about it being war between herself and Malkovich. She chooses roles quickly and often because of one such great moment. If there is a theme to her work, and she denies that she is making any kind of comment about women in general, “many of the women I have played are not what they seem to be. But to be honest I don’t have a template. The script just has to have one moment that makes it worth leaving home.” She laughs loudly.
But she is not joking. Leaving home is a wrench. It has taken her two years since A Streetcar Names Desire was announced to feel that she could make a change in her fourteen-year-old daughter’s routine and come to London with her. Annie is clearly very much the centre of her life. When Close was making 102 Dalmatians in Britain a couple of years ago in order to feel happy about leaving she simply asked Starke, and his wife, if they would come and live in her house and “be Annie’s family”. She is clearly giving her daughter a stability she may not have had as a child herself. All Annie’s life they have lived “with one nanny, three dogs and three cats in a large farmhouse an hour outside New York”. Of course you have to ask, any other significant others? Warning pause. “Not that I want to talk about.” And she says later on, describing the piece of land she has bought in Wyoming on which she hopes Annie might mirror the freedom Close had when a child, “I really feel most happy away from people, which is ironic given what I have chosen to do.”
Although the seeds of that choice were laid in early childhood, something happened at College – William & Mary in Williamsburg Virginia – that made her take the plunge. “ I was painting the scenery one evening and watching the TV. It was the Dick Cavett interview with Katherine Hepburn. It was the only one she ever did on TV. And as I watched her something said to me that if acting was what I wanted to do I should just do it.” She apologises for the too-good-to-be-true quality of this story. But the next day she did send off the letter for the audition, on the last day it could be postmarked, did the audition and got the job as understudy to the lead in Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of Congreve’s Love For Love at The New Phoenix Theatre in New York, where Hal Prince was the artistic director.
At which point it becomes even more worryingly fairy tale. “On the opening night the leading lady fell ill,” Prince remembers, although he won’t say who it was, “and two hours before the critics arrived I took Glenn onto the stage with the stage manager and gave her an hour and a half brush up. She hadn’t ever rehearsed, just watched. Glenn had been in Equity two weeks and she went on. And that was it really. Her career just took off.” It was 1974. She played regularly on Broadway and in the main regional theatres until in 1980 she won her first Tony Award for her role in Barnum. She has since won two more for The Real Thing and Sunset Boulevard.
A couple of years ago she performed at a Kennedy Centre Gala honouring Katherine Hepburn and the director George Stevens made her tell her College story afterwards to the elderly star. “Hepburn was wonderful. She was dressed in a black raincoat. Everyone else was wearing black tie and beyond. She had on a black turtleneck and polished black Reeboks. After wards she wrote me a note. It said ‘A great big hug for your sweet contribution. I’m glad I persuaded you, when you were a mere child, to join this terrible profession. This terrifying profession – let’s face it – is a delicious way to spend your life. With affectionate thanks.’ It’s hanging on the wall in my house framed.” She also has the knife from Fatal Attraction. It was a fitting tribute. Crazy women, damaged women, determined women, deluded women; they all have had their place. In Close’s career and have received the kind of respect from her that may well ultimately put her in a league not far from Hepburn.