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Albert Nobbs: Hiding in Plain Sight

Oscar nominated performance is best of Glenn Close's career

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If Glenn Close picks up an Oscar on Sunday, Feb. 26, for her transcendent performance in Albert Nobbs--and don't rule her out--she'll need to offer a tip of the bowler hat to her supporting players.

She most certainly would share thanks with co-star Janet McTeer (nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category). But Close's finest support came from Matthew Mungle, Lynn Johnson and Martial Corneville, the Oscar-nominated team who turned her into a 19th-century Irishman.

Prior to the September 2011 premiere of Albert Nobbs at the Toronto International Film Festival, Close told me how Mungle had designed her makeup and prosthetics, how Johnston applied the masks each day in two-and-a-half hour sessions, and how Corneville styled her amazing wigs. The delicacy of the trio's craftsmanship did much more than a simple masquerade. They gave ultimate credence to the story of a time-weathered lass hiding in plain sight as a gentleman's gentleman.

"I'm thrilled and very emotional," Close told me in Toronto (BW, Cobweb, "Glenn Close as a Man's Man," Sept. 12, 2011). "But it's a dream come true."

Close nurtured the property for 30 years. She became the film's producer, co-authored the screenplay and even penned the lyrics for the movie's beautiful theme song, "Lay Your Head Down," sung by Sinead O'Connor.

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There was good reason to be skeptical of a film version of Albert Nobbs--the source material, a play (The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs) was overly theatrical. In a 1982 New York production, the play felt compacted by the proscenium, fine for its Off-Broadway venue, but practically impossible to adapt.

Yet Close saw what others didn't--Albert Nobbs was not merely a costume drama. Indeed, it was a study of manner, movement and sensibility, all suited best to be examined by the camera lens. Her film is head-and-shoulders above the overreaching exhibition by actresses grabbing a prosthetic (Nicole Kidman in The Hours) or a wig (Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady) in an obvious effort to nab an Oscar.

Albert Nobbs tells the story of a 19th century woman who must dupe everyone at Dublin's Morrison Hotel into believing that she is a man--serving as a butler--in what, she is convinced, is her only protection against poverty. Her secret, while highly unique, somehow seems familiar and resonates strongly in our 21st century trappings. Albert's plight reminds us of the masks that we all put on before we walk out the door. Powders and potions aim to soften our wrinkles or hide the shadows beneath our eyes, while we debate over the appropriate color combination of our wardrobe. Each day, we embrace alterations to our appearance in fear of being judged for who we truly are.

In 1982, when Close first played Nobbs on the stage, she was just beginning a film career with breakout roles in The Natural and The Big Chill. Over the years, she's been nominated for an Oscar six times, but has also ruled the small screen (three Emmys) and Broadway (three Tonys).

Today she's at the top of her game, and Albert Nobbs is her best work to date. At 64, Close marshaled all of her talents, and there are many, to bring us a story with universal themes: equality, decency, and the deepest desire to be accepted as we are.

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