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Difficult Women: The Complex and Powerful Characters of Glenn Close’s Career

With ‘The Wife,’ the most nominated living actress without an Academy Award is back in the Oscar conversation. Throughout her 35-plus years on screen, Close has revealed just about every side an actor can show.

Buena Vista Pictures/Roadside Attractions/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

If you haven’t read Meg Wolitzer’s best-selling novel The Wife, the trailer for director Björn Runge’s adaptation will keep the story’s twists mysterious for you. Still, what is discernible from those snippets is the type of torment that overtakes Glenn Close’s titular character: “I can’t do it anymore, I can’t take it, I can’t take the humiliation!” she tells her successful writer husband, played by Jonathan Pryce. The Wife is the latest example of Close refusing to be ignored by the patriarchy in a 40-year career paved with always powerfully, sometimes brutally feminist roles.

After making a name for herself on Broadway, Close burst onto the movie scene with George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp in 1982. Playing Garp’s independent and determined single mother Jenny Fields, she demonstrated her ability to portray motherly affection without saccharine sentimentalism, preventing John Irving’s sprawling life story from getting too lofty in its transition to the big screen. With her piercing eyes contrasting her soft, feminine voice, Close was perfectly cast as a nurse who becomes a groundbreaking figure. Fields proves that a child can grow up well without a father, casually declares that prostitution shouldn’t be illegal, and, as portrayed by Close, radiates optimism, goodwill and pragmatism: She is the idealistic incarnation of second-wave feminism. With her first feature film role at the rather late age of 35, Close received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

The rising star followed Garp’s success with a similarly maternal role in an even bigger hit in 1983—and another Oscar nomination. Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill was lauded by critics and loved by baby boomers for its honest yet sympathetic look at children of the 1960s facing disillusionment in middle age two decades later. Its resplendent ensemble cast sees Close play devoted wife to Kevin Kline’s all-around good man as the couple hosts their oldest friends for a weekend after the funeral of one of their own, Alex, who has unexpectedly died by suicide. Close doesn’t have as much dialogue as her talkative WASP costars, but her pivotal character’s emotions show beautifully in her meticulous physical behavior: In the opening scene, Close is recognizable in a close-up on her tear-streaked face, after she puts down her telephone to go see her husband. Silently, she makes him—and us—understand that something terrible and sad has happened, kick-starting the narrative. The characters struggle to admit their regret, disappointment, and fears of aging, and talk in a manner that veers from corny sorrow to provocative, defensive humor. Yet as the weekend’s pseudo-matriarch and the friend most pained by Alex’s passing, Close’s Sarah can’t hide her feelings. Sitting at the cheerful dinner table one night, she’s suddenly overtaken by melancholy; once more, Close’s subtle change in behavior, highlighted by the attentive camera of cinematographer John Bailey, shifts the mood of the scene. Near the film’s denouement, Close’s giddy smile and newfound appeasement discreetly reveal that Sarah has decided to help Meg (Mary Kay Place) become a single mother. Put into words this altruistic and unlikely decision would have seemed both too melodramatic for an otherwise low-key drama and a too obvious parallel to the story of modern motherhood that Close’s character herself goes through in Garp.

A few more nurturer roles followed, with Barry Levinson’s The Natural earning Close yet another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 1984—her third in her first four film roles. The part was small but pivotal; dressed in all white and lit by the sun, she played a real-life vision for Robert Redford’s hero—and a strong single mother yet again. As ever, she was an independent yet loving woman who stood out with her resolute goodness—a motif that the 1985 comedy Maxie attempted to play on, giving Close a surreal case of split personality when her proper housewife character becomes possessed by the spirit of a 1920s flapper girl.

Glenn Close in ‘Fatal Attraction’
Paramount Pictures

But already by 1985, Close had exhausted the possibilities of the impeccable, loving spouse/mother roles. With three Oscar nominations and no wins, she took a 180-degree turn in 1987 with Fatal Attraction. Adrian Lyne’s iconic, hugely successful erotic thriller offered Close the opportunity to give a new and darker depth to her beauty and independent spirit. Close’s Alex Forrest is a complicated villain: What first attracts Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) to this woman isn’t only her unique beauty, but her combination of seeming kindness and modern autonomy. Dressed in radiant white (like in The Natural) with an easy yet startling smile, Alex is a smart book editor who doesn’t need Dan but wants him. But Dan underestimates her strength of character: The determination and free-spiritedness that made Close impressive and an almost utopian feminist figure in this film are taken to new extremes when Dan casually dismisses her after their romantic weekend. Like Jenny Fields, Alex Forrest is self-sufficient and won’t let a man trample all over her—and so what if this revolt eventually, and paradoxically, makes her seem needy? He started it. Close’s naturally curly blond hair reaches ’80s Medusa-levels of volume and her aquiline features have never been so simultaneously fascinating and daunting as she evolves from a sexy, slightly overzealous lover to a raging ex. We are far from the soft and quiet wife of The Big Chill, even as Close keeps her performance emotionally realistic, never going for camp exaggeration, even when the script does. The maternal instinct that Close captured in her earlier career here turns into a basic instinct, perverted by Alex’s frustration: kidnapping Dan’s daughter and claiming she is pregnant with his child are her chosen tactics to try to win his devotion. Alex Forrest is Jenny Fields if the wounded soldier who fathered her child had refused her his sperm.

Some critics have decried Fatal Attraction’s portrayal of a modern woman for being misogynistic, an argument which dismisses the importance of Douglas’s character to his own story. Alex may be vengeful, but Dan is useless and weak. Lyne makes evident that the reason poor Dan sleeps with Alex in the first place is that his caring but liberated wife makes him feel quietly but surely emasculated. The cowardly husband panics when Alex first expresses her disappointment with him and takes too long to swallow his pride and warn his spouse that a potentially dangerous woman is now after him and his family. Perhaps because Fatal Attraction’s narrative works in a heightened mode, Alex’s madness (and Close’s brilliant portrayal of that madness) overshadows Dan’s crippling and pathetic powerlessness. Or perhaps we’re more accustomed to cutting men more slack than women.

Close’s next feature made that very argument: By the end of Stephen Frears’s 1988 masterpiece Dangerous Liaisons, Close’s Marquise de Merteuil finds herself violently shamed by the French aristocratic society when her perverse scheming and manipulation are finally revealed. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons are such similar titles: After triumphing with Lyne, Close further explored the dark mechanics used by scorned and intelligent women taking control of the men around them. “Well, I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men,” answers Merteuil when her friend in mischief, the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), asks her how she “managed to invent” herself. “And I’ve succeeded because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” Merteuil seems to everyone but Valmont like the ideal independent but compliant woman that the actress herself used to play. In the restrictive and gossipy French court, her composure and politeness are heightened—but so is her inner rage. Close’s chemistry and sexual tension with the similarly beguiling and strange Malkovich constantly threaten to explode the screen: Has there ever been such a perfectly vicious and delightful pairing of both villains and skilled actors?

The white powdered mask of quiet satisfaction Merteuil has to wear at all times is chillingly convincing. The marquise may not be conventionally attractive (especially compared to the film’s other, younger women, played by Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer), but she’s a respected widow and a smart and suave woman, always in control because she can’t allow herself any mistake. And so she turns unquestionably ugly when the mask cracks under pressure and her deception and heartbreak surface. Merteuil’s vengeful cruelty is a notch bleaker than Alex Forrest’s despair, and although her demise may not be as bloody, it is more vertiginous in this “win or die” world. With this character, Close went even further into the extremes of female vengeance, again criticizing the damages that a stifling patriarchal society can have on strong and rightly exasperated women.

The 1989 drama Immediate Family was another exploration of motherhood (this time through adoption), produced by The Big Chill director Lawrence Kasdan, but more daring projects kept Close pushing her boundaries in new ways. She played Gertrude in an adaptation of Hamlet starring Mel Gibson in the title role, allowing her to lean into the theater skills that had already garnered her much recognition. In 1991, she surprised many with her brief but strange appearance in Steven Spielberg’s disturbing Hook, as Gutless, a male pirate. Behind her beard, she was more theatrical than ever and challenged gender expectations in a new, more literal way. Whatever you think of Hook, Close’s turn is bold and somewhat refreshing among the plethora of atrocious performances this film has to offer.

Close in ‘The Wife’
Sony Pictures Classics

Appearing alongside Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder, and Jeremy Irons in the 1993 film adaption of The House of the Spirits, Close confirmed her place among the most talented Hollywood actors of her generation, and three years later she would once again challenge expectations with two roles. 101 Dalmatians saw Close fully commit to her villain image and play it for laughs and chills as Cruella de Vil. After boiling innocent bunnies, the almost-50-year-old actress was now after puppies, as though Alex Forrest had aged alone and resolved to find pleasure in extravagant fashion and the suffering of easier targets than men. Deceitful, murderous, and raging even when she’s happy, Cruella de Vil is in many ways the humoristic apotheosis of Glenn Close–as–mad woman. Like a Merteuil for kids, she declares, “We lose more women to marriage than war, famine, and disease.” Close’s willingness to parody herself reveals a lack of preciousness as well as the ability to pick films that are worth the risk. That same year, her campy turn as first lady Marsha Dale in Tim Burton’s completely bonkers (if less successful) Mars Attacks! would confirm this impulse. Nervous and ludicrous, Close commits fully to Burton’s impossible goofiness.

The following year, Close’s role as vice president of the United States in Air Force One echoed Marsha Dale, but her anguish for her and the president’s life this time appeared with the collectedness appropriate for such a “serious” drama. An established and versatile actress, she could now navigate between genres and play powerful women as well as silly wives.

From the late 1990s onward, Close started appearing on TV more often. Hollywood’s common lack of interest in actresses over 40 coupled with the changing landscape of the industry meant that bold mid-budget movies with interesting parts for women had become rarer. After a leading role in the fourth season of the FX cop show The Shield, Close got her own series on the same network in 2007 with Damages. As Patty Hewes, Close was the powerful head of a law firm who would occasionally dispense with ethical boundaries to reach her goals, professional and otherwise—a perfect role for a master of deception such as Close. Just before our current “golden age” of television, Damages was one of the earliest series to offer a rich and complex role to a major Hollywood actress. Close won a Golden Globe and two Emmys for the role but has refrained from leading another show since, focusing instead on theater and smaller films.

In 2011, at age 64, Close reunited with director Rodrigo García—with whom she made 2000’s Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and 2005’s Nine Lives—and finally got to make her most personal project yet, and one perfectly aligned with her legacy of feminist roles. She cowrote the screenplay for Albert Nobbs and played the title character, a woman who passes for a man so she can work as a butler in 19th-century Ireland after having suffered abuse as a little girl. If the prosthetics and accent that Close put on didn’t convince every viewer (including this one), the part nevertheless showed Close’s great courage and occasionally made for some touching moments when Nobbs’s deception and sadness were harder to hide. Constant fear defines this character, and beyond the physical transformation, Close also played in a register far from the strong women she is most famous for, which makes for most of the film’s general melancholy—we want to see her triumph.

Close received her sixth and latest Academy Award nomination for Albert Nobbs, making her the most Oscar-nominated living actor without a win. She’s since appeared in smaller indies like Low Down in 2014 and the critically acclaimed 2016 horror film The Girl With All the Gifts. She reunited with her Dangerous Liaisons costar John Malkovich in the miscalculated rompy romantic comedy The Wilde Wedding in 2017, which nevertheless offered a leading comedic role of the kind Hollywood now rarely generates.

In a landscape that often seems barren for women of a certain age, however high-ranking they might be, Close has also offered her services and hard-earned prestige to blockbusters. In 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, she appeared as Nova Prime, the leader of the Nova Corps whom the original comic book usually presents as a man. The role played on her legacy of powerful characters but also showed how the actress could embrace director James Gunn’s strange half-comedic tone. Close’s foray into franchise cinema was at least in one of the more playful and actor-driven superhero films made today (and limited to the series’ first film).

Close’s claim that she took the Guardians role because she likes to always do different types of projects is not to be doubted, but this writer still prefers to see the gifted, creative, and courageous performer in smaller character pieces where she gets to interact with other actors and experience more complex emotions. This is why The Wife, however modest a film it may be, is so quietly exciting: Close, at 71, gets to face two other powerhouses in Jonathan Pryce and Christian Slater. Her character, Joan Castleman, belongs to the line of pained but powerful women she has given life to in her 36 years on screen. And the film’s title itself is knowing: Glenn Close has never been, and never will be, just a quiet spouse.