There are two ways to win an acting Oscar. One is to deliver the best performance of the year that is so undeniable that the critics, guilds and Academy rally behind it. The other is to be so overdue for an Oscar that voters realize that your time for a career statue has finally come. Elizabeth Taylor lost three times and then won statuettes for both of her next two nominations, for “Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” After seven nominations and an Honorary Oscar, Paul Newman finally took home the win for “The Color of Money,” which was really for “The Verdict” and all the other great performances before.
This year, after seven nominations and no wins, Best Actress is Glenn Close’s to lose. But it wasn’t always in the bag. Many things had to go right. Sony Pictures Classics carefully timed the August 17 release of twisty drama “The Wife” (Metascore: 77), which showcases Close as a woman carrying heavy secrets as she supports her high-profile literary husband (Jonathan Pryce). “The Wife” had a long run in specialty theaters building to a robust gross: $9 million domestic (overseas it has notched almost as much) before hitting home video in late January, right after the nominations.
At the start of the awards season, Best Actress was wide open. Lady Gaga won Best Actress for “A Star Is Born” at the National Board of Review, while Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) won the New York Film Critics Circle, and Lady Gaga and Close shared the Critics Choice award. “The Favourite” star Olivia Colman took the Los Angeles Film Critics. But she and Close both won at the Golden Globes, for Comedy and Drama, respectively.
Colman delivered a fine speech. But Close, who was genuinely surprised, threw away her thank you notes and spoke from the heart about her mother’s deathbed confession that her life as a Connecticut doctor’s wife hadn’t amounted to anything. It was personal, emotional, human. She won over the room, from “Fatal Attraction” costar Michael Douglas to fellow nominees Nicole Kidman and Lady Gaga, as well as the folks at home. And Close was off to the races, building forward momentum for her SAG win, which pushed her even closer to Oscar.
Yes, Colman is still a strong contender (especially for this weekend’s BAFTAs) for her crazy yet vulnerable and empathetic Queen Anne. But while the British actress is about to become better known for playing the next stage of Queen Elizabeth in Netflix series “The Crown” — which has kept her off the full-time Oscar circuit — she is a relative newcomer in Hollywood and will have other shots.
Close started working on Jane Anderson’s over-the-transom script for “The Wife” 14 years ago. She saw that “every woman will relate to it in one way or another,” she said. And she recognized the potential of a movie that “allows the actor to move around, it’s not on the nose. It gives you room to bring your imagination, it’s more challenging that way.”
After her first Oscar nomination for “The World According to Garp,” Close was an early adopter of television roles (incest drama “Something about Amelia”) when film actors were counseled not to do such things. She remains a believer in quality television series like Emmy-winning “Damages.” “The English do it, why can’t we?” she said. “I go where the writing is.”
She often develops her own material, whether TV or film (“Albert Nobbs,” “Sarah, Plain and Tall”). When she commits to something, she digs deep into the script with the writer, and approves the selection of the director, in this case Swedish filmmaker Björn Runge.
The two sat down at Cafe Cluny in New York’s West Village for two hours, sizing each other up. “It’s an instinctive feel on my part, that we would be in good hands,” she said. “He knows where to put the camera to capture what we are doing — it feels like filmmaking 101, but it doesn’t happen a lot. He knows how to light a close-up to see into the eyes.”
Anderson (“Normal”) adapted Meg Wolitzer’s bestseller about a smart woman who stepped back from her own writing to serve her husband’s career; her life is thrown into perspective when her husband wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. The two women deconstructed the script as Close asked question after question. Then the week before shooting began in Glasgow they met every day with Runge and the ensemble. “We put a fine-tooth comb through the scenes to trace the emotional journey,” said Close.
The catalyst for the story and the relationship is the Nobel Prize. The wife is “exposed more publicly than she has been in a while and made to feel invisible in public,” said Close. “One of my favorite scenes is when they arrive in Stockholm and she is just standing there holding his coat. They’ve been together a long time. She’s enabling him to become who he becomes, she becomes an enabler. It’s an arrangement that seems okay until it’s not. Compromises are made.”
Runge shot the talking head film in closeup with two cameras to catch reaction shots. After establishing common ground during rehearsals, Close and Pryce jumped into action on the first day with a sex scene. Close remembers thinking, “‘Is this okay? All right, we’re pros here, let’s just go for it.’ That might have been the best thing to start with.”
The climactic hotel bedroom scene when the wife tells her husband that she is done with the marriage was the trickiest to pull off. “There were times when I didn’t know how to act it,” she said. “I’d never been in the room with someone having a heart attack, even though my dad was a doctor. It was devastating for me when he says ‘do you love me?’ Oh my god, of course she does, but it’s so much more complicated than that, to have it come down to that when he’s slipping away. It was so upsetting.”
Next up: Close has a new unannounced project, and she’s getting back into producing. “I am going back to some stories I had in development when I had a deal at Disney, stories I still love, which I am going to resurrect.” She’s open to a “Big Chill” reunion — she still hangs out with Jeff Goldblum and Mary Kay Place — but only if Lawrence Kasdan wants to write it.
She’d also like to retell “Fatal Attraction” from Alex Forrest’s point of view. The character has appeared on multiple lists of the best movie villains of all time. “I loved that character,” she said. “I’m thrilled that movie has become part of our culture. Even though it came out at a time when it really put a finger on the suppressed anger between the sexes because of feminism. It was a propitious time for that subject.”
She did rigorous research for her character, and gave the script to two different psychiatrists, asking, “Is this behavior possible, and if it is, what would cause it?” While the movie never mentioned any sort of mental disorder, Close has long believed that Forrest needed a shrink, because “she was incested at an early age by her father, which would make it difficult to have a full relationship, especially if you were a child and turned into a sex object,” she said. “This explained why she would spy on him, and giving the rabbit to the little girl, when she runs to the bushes and throws up. What did it trigger, what did it force her to do? It’s easy to make fun of and make unbalanced people the bad guy — that perpetuates the stigma. If it’s not a Nazi or the Taliban, it’s a mentally ill person.”
And she’s sorry she can’t return as her iconic “101 Dalmations” creation Cruella De Vil in the 1980s spin-off “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone. “I’m conflicted,” Close said. “It’s a weird feeling: I thought I still had some mileage in that part. Cruella should go to New York. It should be me. Anyone who read the original Dodie Smith book knows she’s the devil; she likes heat and fur. You don’t want to humanize her too much!”