Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Close to Perfection

In almost any other year, Glenn Close would easily walk off with the Best Actress Oscar for her brilliant, fragile performance in the heartbreakingly beautiful "Albert Nobbs." But with Meryl Streep and Viola Davis in the high profile mix, it's doubtful Close's sixth nomination will finally garner her the well-deserved statuette. Let's hope the nomination is enough to get more people to see this lovely little film.

Close plays Albert Nobbs, a shy waiter at a once high-tone 19th-century Dublin hotel. The gender-bending role itself is usual a good Academy Award bet ( think Hillary Swank's "Boys Don't Cry" or Felicity Huffman in "TransAmerica). But neither the performance or the film feels gimmicky. The earnest character portrait is infused with such quiet. but potent emotion. Close--with cropped orange hair--doesn't exactly look like a man. But she doesn't look like a woman either. She looks, as one of the hotel patrons says, "Like the strangest little man." If they only knew.

Indeed, it's that strangeness that draws you in. Why is Albert, who was born a woman, living her life as a man? The answer isn't as simple as the cruel economics of the era. While it's true unmarried women had few options, that's not the whole story. There's a tragic story--one I'll let you discover as the film unfolds--that underscores Albert's furtive little life, one always shrouded in fear of exposure.

Albert seems content to all but fade into the Victorian wallpaper. Until he meets a brash house painter Hubert Page, played by the magnificent Janet McTeer ( also Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress) Hubert, too, was born a woman, but left her husband and made a similar choice to live as a man. The only difference: Hubert lives in domestic bliss with his "wife," a sweet dressmaker.

This revelation opens dormant desires in Albert. The savings he's squirreled
away might be used to purchase a tobacco shop; a wild-eyed maid might make a nice wife. We watch Albert tentatively venture into the world with new hope.

Close has kept this project, based on a short story by George Moore, published in 1918, close to her heart for decades. She originally starred in an off-Broadway production and has been trying to get a version up on the screen for years ( she also co-wrote the screenplay and song). And that intimacy and obvious affection for Albert is evident. In other hands, the character could come off mawkish, a sentimental wax work. But director Rodrigo Garcia guides his star in a deeply felt inner journey.

The film is fascinating, the supporting players including McTeer, Brendan Fraser, Mia Wasikowska and Brenda Fricker all add color to what could be seen as a drab little story. But it is ultimately Close's performance that makes the film so captivating. A performance like this is so rare in its power and raw, emotionally beauty, it almost defies description. You simply have to watch Close's eyes and you'll see Albert's misery, longing, kindness all wrapped up in a single glance.

There's a grander takeaway, too. "Albert Nobbs," isn't just a sad and complicated story about one person searching for acceptance and normalcy. It's also a study in human nature and humanity. Most of the characters--the rich patrons and the servants--are all pretending to be something they're not. Sound like someone you know? We all hide behind social masks sometimes. To get past the mask, to dig deeper, taking in the real person, gifts, warts, and all, therein lie the true thrill and honor of knowing another human being.

Speaking of honors, I hope Glenn Close is proud of that Oscar nomination. And award yourself the honor of watching "Albert Nobbs."

Drive safe. Play nice. Think peace.

And pass the popcorn,


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