Glenn Close studied Charlie Chaplin's films in preparing to play a woman disguised as a male butler in the period piece "Albert Nobbs," based on the short story by George Moore.
"I always felt there was a clownish element to Albert," says Close, who won an Obie when she first played the character onstage 30 years ago.
"My grandfather used to take us to the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the great American clown was Emmett Kelly, with that sad face. He never smiled, and yet he was incredibly funny.
"In my imagination, I thought what would happen with the clothes she was given. She was only 14 when she disguised herself as a man, but that becomes comfortable for her. She was Chaplinesque because her childhood was so hard and she begged. But that's what she needed to do."
Close's performance earned a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination and, on Tuesday, a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Although Nobbs is almost always present onscreen, she dissolves into the background, enabling her secret to remain safe. But when she meets another woman getting by as a man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), and becomes enchanted by a young woman, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), Albert's life becomes turbulent -- with tragic consequences.
"Albert was a woman looking out, almost like putting on a mask," Close says, "and besides that she needs to be invisible. She couldn't survive as a woman alone. So she chose a profession that was supposed to be invisible at that time.
"She existed. With her eyes downcast. And she was surviving. And she had her money that kept her out of the poorhouse, and she was perfectly fine until Hubert Page comes along."
Although she plays Albert as timid and unworldly, Close is best known for her roles as tough and powerful women. Her Alex in "Fatal Attraction" still makes men squirm, and how can one not adore her as Cruella de Vil, the femme-fatale extraordinaire of "101 Dalmatians" and its sequel? She is filming another season of "Damages," the television series in which she plays cutthroat attorney Patty Hewes, one of the most complicated characters to hit television. That role also earned her an Emmy.
"Glenn has played a lot of these very powerful women," says "Albert Nobbs" director Rodrigo Garcia. "This was a very particular concoction. Nobbs has resources and some power in that she has survived through intelligence and perseverance. It's a much more innocent, fragile character in some ways, but strong and practical. I think that's why she was attracted to that sensitivity."
Close has displayed some of Nobbs' sensitive side in other roles. She was the long-lost girlfriend who helps bring salvation to Roy Hobbs in "The Natural." She also shows vulnerability -- think Sunny von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune."
In person, Close takes on all these traits: She's humbled and awed to hear that someone saw her star onstage in "Barnum," gets excited talking about her favorite baseball team, the New York Mets, and shows true authority when talking about "Albert Nobbs."
Perhaps that's also the key to Close's portrayal of Nobbs. She is a damaged soul yet has found a way to come out of her shell.
"The most fun challenge was that constant conversation with Glenn about who exactly was Nobbs?" Garcia says. "How does Nobbs behave? She's smart and resourceful, but she's also very naive. Sexually, she's almost not there.
"She is very engaging. You feel for her, but you don't want to think, 'Oh my God, she's a fool.' How can Glenn think this is going to work? That was hard work but very enjoyable -- the constant conversation with Glenn about the nature of Nobbs."
Ever since Close first performed Nobbs in "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs" onstage in 1982 when Simone Benmussa adapted Moore's story, she has wanted to bring the tale to the screen. She went on a 10-year mission before finally meeting that goal, with her not only as the star but also as a co-producer and co-writer of the screenplay. She was instrumental in hiring director Garcia and most of the cast, including McTeer.
"'Albert Nobbs' is something I knew I could make happen," Close says. "I was very blessed by each member of the team."
To see a trailer, go to albertnobbs-themovie.com.
(Email Leba Hertz at lhertz(at)sfchronicle.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
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