Putting oneself first: still a revolutionary act for women
In The Wife, Glenn Close stars as a writer struggling with both self-deprecation and balancing her own needs with the wants of others
By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 21, 2018 Print Edition, Page A15
M y first job, in 1984, was assistant to the editor of GQ, Art Cooper. Cooper's wife, Amy Levin, was the editor of Mademoiselle (now defunct).
I wrote pieces for both magazines, and there was one story Levin really wanted me to do: how women tend to minimize their achievements, especially if their partner works in the same field.
"Art is this big, important editor, and I just run this little magazine," I remember her saying.
I never wrote the story, but Levin lived it, and eventually renamed herself Amy Levin Cooper.
I thought of her this week, when Julie Chen, host of Big Brother, called herself Julie Chen Moonves at the end of the most recent episode, in the wake of her husband Les Moonves's ouster from CBS after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
I was also reminded of Levin while watching the latest iteration of A Star Is Born (which opens in October, trailing good reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival): Lady Gaga's character, Ally, calls herself Ally Maine at the end, in honour of her husband Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper. (That's not a spoiler, since the other A Star Is Born ends the same way.)
This month, two movies open with similar story lines, to which I suspect Levin might relate: Colette, starring Keira Knightley as the real-life novelist who fought to publish under her own name; and The Wife, starring Glenn Close as Joan, a writer who keeps her work secret.
The former, set in early 1900s Paris, is about a trailblazer fighting society; the latter, set in 1992 Connecticut, is about a shy acquiescent, fighting lifelong selfdeprecation. But the message is the same: Even a woman with a lot to say can be trumped by a man who wants to say it for her.
Close and I met during TIFF 2017, when The Wife first premiered. She was wearing an on-trend plaid jacket, and her skin looked scrubbed and radiant. We spoke again this past August, after the film got a release date.
"Women have this expectation to buoy up their mate, but it's not always reciprocated," she said. "I think it's in the female nature to nurture. But it's also still expected in our culture. What we're starting to go through - yet again - with #TimesUp, I hope will be cultural revolution. But to last, that's what it will have to be, a revolution."
The Wife was written by Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), based on Meg Wolitzer's novel; and directed by Bjorn Runge, a Swede, with perfect northern chilliness.
Joan's husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), is the kind of Towering Male Novelist who dominated the 1960s - think Mailer, Roth, Updike.
He's not physically abusive, and she's complicit in what occurs. But the film explores "a kind of enabling that women do," Close says.
"It's unpleasant to make men angry, so you tiptoe around. Or you say, 'Oh, I see that behind his ego he's fragile, I see the defences he's built up,' so you help him.
While you ignore your own needs.
"I hope this stirs up people's molecules and gets a lot of conversation going," she adds. "And helps women take charge of their own lives."
Every actor claims to be shy; with Close, you actually believe her. She speaks quietly, carefully.
She's palpably modest, especially for someone who's racked up six Oscar nominations, for, among others, The World According to Garp, Fatal Attraction and Albert Nobbs (she co-wrote that last one).
She's kept her private life - which includes four divorces and one daughter, Annie Starke - admirably private. (Starke plays young Joan in The Wife; their skin flushes the same way.) When I ask Close, who's 71, if there are echoes of The Wife in her own life - choices she made, opportunities she turned down - she flashes a sly smile and replies, "That will stay an enigma."
Joan's containment, the way she swallows errant emotions, would make many women pop a capillary. But Close loved playing it.
"My idea of a perfect scene is one where I don't have to talk," she says. "I've always existed very much in my own head. I'm basically an introvert. My process as an actor is not to think of times in my own life and substitute the feelings - that's too complicated to me. I try to create thoughts in my head that would be the thoughts of my character. I find thought incredibly powerful on film."
In her early years, Close lived with her parents and siblings on her maternal grandmother's estate in tony Greenwich, Conn., "running around the countryside, pretending, pretending, pretending," she says.
"When my sister played Hopalong Cassidy, and I was his sidekick Lucky, I really meant it.
Though I could barely sing in front of my parents, I was fearless in front of an audience."
Acting was also her way out of the cult-like group her parents joined when she was 7, called the Moral Re-Armament. At 22, she began studying theatre at the College of William & Mary.
The world never knew her as an ingénue: She was 27 when she made her professional stage debut, and 35 when she made her first film, Garp. She now divides her time between homes in Bedford Hills, N.Y., and Bozeman, Mont., where her siblings also live.
"For most of my career, I either created work for myself or fought for it," Close says. "Things don't just fall into my lap. So I'm hungry for more. Still." She laughs.
Recently, she did an Amazon pilot, Sea Oak, written by George Saunders. It sounds tantalizing - she played a cashier at a Dollar Store in rust belt upstate New York who comes back from the dead to live the life she was too afraid to live - but it wasn't picked up.
She's also plugging away on a film version of Sunset Boulevard (she starred in the play). And next week, she'll begin her first-ever run at New York's Public Theater, in Mother of the Maid - she plays mother to Joan of Arc.
"I'm more thrilled than ever by my work, because I have 43 years of craft under my belt," she says. "I think women become more interesting after 40. I hope that's part of this revolution, as more women are developing stories, putting companies together. Making themselves heard."
In the 1990s, Close started her own production company; she's thinking of reviving it.
"I'm a late bloomer," she sums up. "I'm just figuring out that in life, you can't keep emptying your cup in service of other people.
You have to keep your cup full for yourself, and give the world the overflow. I'm trying to do that now."
The Wife opens Sept. 21 in Toronto and Vancouver, and Sept. 28 in Montreal
CLASSIFICATION: 14A; 100 MINUTES
Directed by Bjorn Runge Written by Jane Anderson Starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce Glenn Close, who plays the title character, has compared her Swedish director, Bjorn Runge, to Ingmar Bergman, and she's not wrong.
Written by the playwright and screenwriter Jane Anderson and based upon the novel by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife exhales itself with a chilly formality, in both its style and the way its characters relate. But under the cool exterior, much is roiling.
We meet Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a Great American Novelist, in 1992, on the morning he wins the Nobel Prize. Buoying him up is his wife Joan (Close), who long ago subsumed her ambitions to support his. Or as she puts it later, "I am a kingmaker." Watch Close's face in these early scenes; imagine what she's feeling because you will imagine something much different by the end.
The Castlemans travel to Oslo to prep for the Nobel ceremony, trailed by Nathaniel (Christian Slater). He wants to be Castleman's biographer, but smells a different story.
Meanwhile, we flash back to the couple's early days, when Joe was Joan's professor at Smith College, and she burned for more.
Young Joan is played by Annie Stark, Close's daughter; it's a good fit, because they have the same voice, the same skin and the same self-containment.
When the explosions come, even they are reserved, which may leave some viewers frustrated.
But there is a different kind of pleasure in watching ultracivilized people struggle to contain their clammy self-loathing (in Joe's case) and fury (in Joan's).
And if you think the themes of this story are nestled comfortably in the past, think again.
JOANNA SCHNELLER Special to The Globe and Mail
Glenn Close attends the premiere of The Wife in Hollywood in July. The film stars Close as the wife of a successful novelist, and explores the role that women play in nurturing those around them, sometimes to the detriment of their own desires. ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES