REVIEW: “Albert Nobbs” and the mystery of identity

Unlike The Crying Game, where the sex of a character is a major twist about halfway through, the genders of the characters in Albert Nobbs is not much in doubt: Glenn Close is a big star with above-the-title billing — her butched-up face is the ad campaign. And yet there is just as much mystery here, albeit of a different kind. This is a story of identity that’s almost impenetrable.

Albert (Close) is a gentlemanly servant at a high-end boutique hotel in Ireland. Everyone admires Albert: The women appreciate his respectful demeanor, his male co-workers his work ethic, the boss, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), his reliability. But no one really knows Albert, who lives in a small room in the attic and squirrels away his money and dreams of something else.

But really, Albert doesn’t even know himself. He has been living as a man for decades — who knows how long? — and cannot even remember a time when he (or she) was not Albert. He has become so repressed, he almost doesn’t have a personality anymore.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Man up

Glenn Close’s Oscar-nominated role as a gender-bending Irish butler with a secret fuels the fascinating ‘Albert Nobbs’

Glen-Close

HIDDEN LIFE | Glenn Close received her sixth Oscar nomination — alongside nominated co-star Janet McTeer, opposite — playing a gay woman living as a man in turn-of-the-century Ireland in ‘Albert Nobbs.’

Twenty-four hours before The Golden Globes ceremony, where she was in the running for best actress in a drama for Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close is doing some last minute press from her Four Seasons hotel room in Los Angeles. While she ultimately didn’t take home a statuette the next night, Close’s performance is a bona fide winner — and represents “closure and joy” for a passion-project 30 years in the making.

Playing a woman who for decades has camouflaged herself as a man to work as a hotel butler and survive in 19th century Ireland, Close, who also produced and co-wrote the film (and its Globes-nominated, Sinead O’Connor-performed original song, “Lay Your Head Down”), turns in a vulnerable, kindly, enigmatic and multilayered performance — quite literally so, with subtle facial prosthetics to butch up her features. Nobbs also co-stars Janet McTeer as Hubert, a swaggering lesbian whom also poses as a man, and Mia Wasikowska as Helen, a beguiling maid to whom Albert takes a romantic shine.

Albert represents a polar opposite of the role that has come to define Close in recent years: Iron-fisted, manipulative lawyer Patty Hewes on the DirectTV series, Damages, which wraps its fifth and final season this year.

Via telephone — before she learned of her Oscar nomination earlier this week — Close discussed gender-bending, wrapping up Damages, and a whole bunch of queer stuff.

— Lawrence Ferber

Albert Nobbs is now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

Dallas Voice: You first played Albert Nobbs in a 1982 off-Broadway production of the play and have toiled for years to bring a film version to screen. Do awards matter to you, both for this performance specifically and in general?  Glenn Close: In what way? It sounds kind of disingenuous when I talk like this, but I honestly think that you’re almost a winner when you’re nominated and the whole craziness around who wins and doesn’t win I just can’t buy into. For the winner, yes, it’s wonderful, and it would be wonderful to win everything, particularly because this is the most I have been invested [in a film] and it was an incredible journey for me. But the journey itself had great closure and was challenging and satisfying in every way. So I don’t feel like awards would change that. Of course, I would love for a lot of people to see it. That’s where the nominations are very helpful.

ALBN-GClose-JMcTeerWere you a fan of movies about gender-bending characters, like Yentl and Victor Victoria, before Nobbs?  Yeah. I remember seeing Yentl onstage with Tovah Feldshuh [in the 1970s]. It blew me away. But those were different from Nobbs. What was really important to us was to make the characters in the movie not seem oblivious for thinking this character is a man. I wasn’t convinced that Julie Andrews was a man, and I don’t think necessarily that Barbra Streisand was the most convincing of men. It was very important for us to be authentic and find ways of subtly changing Janet’s and my faces so that would be believable to the people within the story.

Did you and Janet have some fun with it when you were in your male drag?  Yeah. Janet accosted Brendan Gleeson, whom she’d played opposite as Lady Churchill in the HBO series Into the Storm, and he didn’t have any idea who she was! I tell you, it would have been fun to get all duded-up and walk through Dublin. But I just didn’t have time to. I liked being Albert. I liked surprising myself every time I passed a mirror, and to be on the set looking like a guy is different from just acting.

The scene in which Janet’s character Hubert, whom Albert initially thinks is a biological man, catches her and realizes she’s a woman is so painful. Albert looks so scared. Was that a tough scene for you to act?  No. I just had to think of how dire it would be for Albert if she was discovered and thrown out. She thinks her life is over and wouldn’t have a job. I think one of the hardest scenes for me was when I asked Helen out for a walk for the first time, because I didn’t know what to do with my face. Albert is starting to look up more than she ever had, but it’s still not comfortable for her to look into people’s eyes. The tricky thing about the whole part was the dilemma of somebody who has been stoic and behind a mask all those years — how much does she show on her face as she starts to look up and out at the world again?

Did you consider adding a new character, a young woman pretending to be a teenage boy, so you could cast Justin Bieber in it? Think of the box office dollars that would reap!  [Laughing] Ah, Justin Bieber. He’d probably be very good at that. I don’t know if it would be convincing in a period movie in Victorian Dublin, but you never know!

While researching the time period in which Nobbs takes place, did you learn whether living as a male was typical for lesbians to do back then?  My research mainly turned up women who did this either to fight in wars, have a job or go on adventure. And then there are cases of people who married women, and the women found out later [their husbands] were women and not men. So I don’t know. It was a mixture, and whether they were lesbians are not, homosexuality was against the law. I’m not sure whether lesbianism was also against the law, but it was certainly considered aberrant and something to hide.

You famously played lesbian military vet Margarethe Cammermeyer in the 1995 TV movie, Serving in Silence. When ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed, was it a big moment for you? And did you two talk about it?  Yes, it was, definitely. I was in touch with Grethe when that all happened and I would’ve loved to have gone to D.C. for that, but I just wasn’t able to. We talked about how proud we were that, back then, we did Serving in Silence and to think of the time that’s gone by since and the lives [military policy and DADT] affected in an unfortunate way. But thank God DADT doesn’t exist anymore. Not that everything’s going to change, but at least it has on the books. I think, ultimately, [gender and sexuality] shouldn’t matter. I’ve said this about our film. In some ways, gender should be irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter who someone is connected to and finds love and a life with. I hope [full federal equality] will come to be a reality for the LGBT world.

You’ve called Patty Hewes the role of your life. What can you tell us about this last season of Damages?  Oh, it’s a good, juicy season. Patty goes after a Wikileaks guy, like Julian Assange. She’s prosecuting him and Helen is defending him, so it’s pretty good.

Does the season come to a conclusive, all-tied-up end, or does it leave things open so there could be a Damages movie later down the line, a la 24?  I don’t know necessarily how our writers are going to end the season. We’ve had some general conversations about it, but knowing them I doubt it would all be in a tight and nice package with a bow.

If you were in a legal pickle, would you want Patty to represent you?  Absolutely! We couldn’t afford her, but I’d like her to represent me, yes.

You lost Oscars in the past to two other gay favorites, Cher and Jodie Foster. Are you hatin’ on them?  Funny, I didn’t think of that. I don’t hate them at all. Are you kidding me?

It would be great to see you three together in a project.  Oh, that would be wild. That would be good.

………………….

•online exclusive

For a review of Albert Nobbs — and to read more about the Oscar nominations — visit DallasVoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Woman’s world

Rodrigo Garcia has made a career telling stories from a female perspective, a style he turns on its head in ‘Albert Nobbs’

Womans-World

THE BUTLER DID IT Rodrigo Garcia, above right, directs Glenn Close, left in the gender-bending drama ‘Albert Nobbs.’

It’s not even 7 a.m. in California, but Rodrigo Garcia has already been awake for hours. He’s been in production on a series he’s shooting for the web about female characters.

It is nothing new for Garcia to be telling stories about women, although the format — webisodes — may seem a bit out of place for someone best know for writing and directing feature films and premium cable series. But it doesn’t bother Garcia — he lets his interests lead his career, not vice versa.

“What’s still driving my interest is the content — issues of identity, family dynamics … those kinds of things,” he says. “The studios are making less of those now, and more tentpole and high concept movies for young people. So why not the Internet? The platforms are still being explored. The draw is where can you tell stories that interest you.”

And the stories that have interested Garcia have often been those related to women, and frequently gay characters, as in his new film Albert Nobbs.

This is not unique in Hollywood, although it does put him in some rarefied company.

“There is a long line of male directors interested in female characters, from Bergman to Truffaut and Antonioni, all of whom had female characters at the center. Also Cukor and Minnelli in Hollywood. It’s not uncommon for guys to just go there.”

Garcia’s career arc has been rangy but compelling. He received an Emmy nomination for directing the pilot of Big Love, the HBO series about modern-day polygamists — another topic rife with women’s issues. He helmed several episodes of Six Feet Under, which famously had several gay characters, and was even invited by his friend Ilene Chaiken to direct The L Word, though he was never able to schedule it. (“I liked that show, obviously I felt comfortable with the subject matter,” he says.) His feature Nine Lives told interconnected stories of women, many about gay life.

But it started for Garcia with his first film, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her, a portmanteau of shorts about women. It wasn’t his initial intent, though, to tell only women’s stories.

“When I was writing that movie, I wrote the women first. They were so complex, I just kept going. Ultimately, I don’t feel the movies are about women or female problems but things that interest me. But the subject matter could be male also, like the ties that bind us.”

Garcia walks the razor’s edge between male and female with his latest film, Albert Nobbs, which begins a staggered release this week (it opens in Dallas in late January). In it, Glenn Close plays Albert, a servant in an Irish hotel who for 30 years has been a gentleman’s gentleman.

Only Albert was born a woman, and has chosen to live her life as a trans man in an era where there simply was no definition of that. When Albert meets another woman living on the down-low, and begins to explore his feelings for a young chambermaid, his life is turned upside-down. The set-up means Garcia addresses issues of male-female identity with rare depth.

“The themes and conflicts were very strong. Albert is beyond from being ‘inside a closet’ — she has erased herself and supplanted it with her butler, now in her 50s.

I’ve started to recognize [the theme in my work] where you can’t live with someone and you can’t live without them. In the movie, the young girl that was Albert — I don’t even know what the young girl was called — and [the adult] Albert is that relationship.”

It was a reunion of sorts with Close, who worked with Garcia on both Things You Can Tell and Nine Lives. Close also produced and co-wrote the screenplay to Albert Nobbs.

As unusual as the plot may seem, Garcia says there are “many, many instances” of women hiding out as men to make their livings, working as butlers, or even as coal miners. Making the audience believe this could happen, though, is another matter.

“It’s happened many times where you’re in a public place and you see someone and you think, ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ But you would never consider asking them, ‘Are you something else?’ As long as you believe those around her couldn’t see it, you believe it. It’s extremely hard to pull off, but it didn’t worry me with Glenn.”

Garcia insists Close wore very little makeup to achieve the effect. “You don’t want the audience to feel like they didn’t even try so the nose is sort of a masculine version of the nose that sits on Glenn’s face and the ears are a little bigger — that’s it,” he says.

“The movie is about closets and what you have to repress to fit in, but it was not about a gay character because she’s not gay or straight — she’s erased that, too. It’s so sad she has to hide who she is.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

And the winner is…

… Actually, the winners are. In a few different ways.

First, there are the nominees for the Golden Globe awards, which came out this morning. Among those in contention: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer for playing trans men in Albert Nobbs (look for a feature in Dallas Voice next week on that film), Leo DiCaprio for playing the gay FBI chief in J. Edgar, Kenneth Branagh for playing the bisexual Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, Christopher Plummer for playing a gay man who comes out late in life in Beginners, Rooney Mara for playing the bisexual investigator in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jodie Foster as a mom in Carnage and Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in Shame. That’s a lot of gay for the Oscars… A lot of them are also winners of other awards from the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics and the Screen Actors Guild.

The other winner this week: Liz Mikel. I have to say, I take a little credit for being about the only local critic actually to like the world premiere of Lysistrata Jones (back when it was called Give It Up). Mikel was the only original cast member to move to the Broadway version, and the New York Times raved about the premiere last night, singling out Mikel for praise. Good for Liz, good for the Dallas Theater Center, good for everyone.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Liz Mikel actually isn’t the only Dallas cast member to make it to New York — Patti Murin, Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Katie Boren are also in the show.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Cammermeyer appointed to DOD committee

Col. Margarethe 'Grethe' Cammermeyer, left, with then-Texas State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt during Cammermeyer's visit to Dallas in 1998
Col. Margarethe ‘Grethe’ Cammermeyer, left, with then-Texas State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt during Cammermeyer’s visit to Dallas in 1998.

Back in 1989, the U.S. Army Reserves threw Col. Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer out of the military when she told the truth during a security clearance interview and acknowledged that she was a lesbian.

Today, 21 years later, the Department of Defense announced that Cammermeyer has been appointed to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

In announcing Cammermeyer’s appointment — and the appointment of a new committee chair and eight other committee members — Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley said the committee’s work is “vital to the development of informed department policy.”

—  admin