by Gary M. Kramer -
SGN Contributing Writer
Albert Nobbs gives actress Glenn Close - who also produced, and co-wrote the screenplay and penned the closing song lyrics - a plum part as a woman who poses as a male butler in 19th-century Ireland. Close's work in the film has garnered her an Oscar nomination for best actress. The story, which addresses gender roles of the Victorian era, is a pet project for Close. She won an Obie in 1982 for her performance as Nobbs in a stage version of the George Moore's short story.
On the phone from New York, Close pauses to give her dog Bill, a mutt, a treat so she could talk about Albert Nobbs.
Although the character was familiar to the actress, becoming the reserved Albert Nobbs provided a welcome change of pace after playing several over the top characters, ranging from Patty Hewes on TV's Damages to Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, and Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction.
'Yeah, it was wonderful, really wonderful to play Albert after doing Cruella and Patty,' Close recalled with a laugh. 'I've had a run of really strong, and really 'out there' women, so to go to someone very internal, it was a great challenge - very fulfilling.'
And the actress insisted that despite outward appearances, Nobbs is a 'she.' 'I never think of Nobbs as a 'he,' she said adamantly. 'She puts on a disguise and looks out at the world with downcast eyes. Servants were not supposed to look people in the eye. They were supposed to face the wall when people passed by.'
Albert's reaction shots, as well as 'her' look and voice, are the key to what makes Close's performance so noteworthy. In one memorable scene, she appears wide-eyed when a stranger, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), with whom Albert shares a bed one night, reveals her breasts. Page illustrates that she is practicing the same gender deception as Nobbs, and the two women soon become friends.
Other private moments feature Albert wondering about Hubert's marriage, or silently observing guests in the hotel hallways or during a costume party. At the mention of this latter scene, Close interjected to recount one of her favorite moments in the film, when the hotel Doctor (played by Brendan Gleeson) says to her, 'We're disguised as ourselves.'
'Little does he know!' she said with a laugh.
The actress revealed that her inspiration for the character's comportment and movement were based on Charlie Chaplin.
'He's of the human comedy, and there should be aspects of comedy and sadness [to Nobbs]. His shoes are always too big and heavy, and his pants too long. That aspect is unconsciously comic. I was always very influenced by Laurel and Hardy and Emmett Kelly, that comic clown with Ringling Bros. Circus when I was growing up.'
As for the deep male voice, Close learned to develop her lower register by working with a voice and dialect coach. She reflected back on something her William and Mary theatre professor, Howard Scammon, taught her, 'You can have as great a speaking range as you do a singing range.' She added, 'But that's tricky,' and indicated that she received notes from her coach about dialect and tone to make sure she was consistently at the right level.
Tone is an important element in Albert Nobbs. The film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia (who has worked with Close twice before, on Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives), is shot in a lovely, burnished style. There are brief flights of fantasy, along with serious episodes, as when an epidemic takes over the hotel. However, most of the drama stems from Albert hiding both her female identity and a cache of money she keeps concealed in her floorboards. A subplot has Joe (Aaron Johnson), who finagles a job at the hotel, prompting his girlfriend Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a maid, to go out with Albert to get some of his money. Albert, however, is oblivious to the deception as she sees Helen as a potential partner for the tobacco shop she hopes to open.
'Albert starts this dream of finding someone who can help her have a business with insufficient information,' Close explained. 'She's lived in hotels since she was 14 and doesn't know anything. She models herself as the perfect Victorian gentleman, and tries to present herself as that, with her formal hat and umbrella. She knows nothing of human contact and intimacy. Albert is naïve. She's not looking out with a furrowed brow, but with an 'unknowingness.'
Albert's naïveté is also evident in how she develops in her relationship with Mr. Page. Albert observes the closeness Page shares with her wife, Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), with a curious eye, wondering aloud if Page told Cathleen she was a woman before or after their wedding.
Close offered this insight about the character's perspective, 'She's worked for 30 years, and you think she would know more, but she doesn't want to know more. It would jeopardize her secret. She tells Hubert she moved around -
which is taken directly from the original story - because she was afraid of being found out.'
While Nobbs and Page are both deceptive, Joe is also passing himself off as someone he is not. The unemployed young man pretends to be a boiler's apprentice to get a job at the hotel, which leads to the love triangle and ultimately determines the fate of several characters in the film.
'I think Joe has an unbearable life,' Close acknowledged. 'He is someone who is illiterate, and from an abusive background, with a vicious father. He is used to being beaten up, and abuse creates abuse. What I love about Joe is that he realizes this. He doesn't want to become his father, or be in that vicious cycle. He survives in the only way he can. I respect him for that.'
She also praised Hubert, who defies the established gender roles of the times. 'Women had no rights then, so Hubert becomes a hero to me.'
In addition, Close has tremendous respect for Garcia, who is also the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 'It was a very natural relationship. Rodrigo reminded me of Robert Altman - he was so inclusive,' she observed about the director. But, she disclosed, she had concerns about working as a producer and writer as well as an actress.
'I would often throw out ideas, and because we worked fast, one had to speak up. When I would speak up, I would feel sick because I didn't want to be construed as undermining Rodrigo. We came to the point were we were totally on the same page on the set.'
Close's perseverance in front of and behind the camera has paid off. What is more, it is evident throughout Albert Nobbs. Resolve proves to be the key to the characters, Close's performance, and the film itself.
© 2012 Gary M. Kramer
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