by writer/producer/actress Glenn Close
Thirty years ago, I was introduced to the character, Albert Nobbs. Simone Benmussa of the Théâtre du Rond-Point, in Paris, had successfully mounted a stage adaptation of George Moore's novella in both Paris and London and was in New York to direct a production of the play, which she had titled The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, at The Manhattan Theater Club. It was early in my career; I had just finished appearing in my first movie role—Jenny Fields in The World According to Garp. I remember my audition for Ms. Benmussa was far from satisfactory. I was aware of the highly subtle complexity of Albert and found it incredibly challenging to try to play her in one five-minute scene. So much so that I stopped in the middle of my audition and said, "I am not doing this character justice. I am boring myself, so I must be boring you. I'm sorry, but I think I'll go now." And I walked out. That evening, I heard from my agent that Simone thought my audition was the most interesting thing that had happened that day and wanted me to come back. I was thrilled, but determined to do better. So, I contacted an acting coach, whom I had heard about through friends, went in for a session with him, was able to get a bit more of a handle on Albert, went back to audition and got the part. The truth is that I wouldn't be here writing this today, if I hadn't been given that second chance. When I walked back into the audition room and convinced them that I could play Albert, I unknowingly set into motion events that would afford me one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career, even though it would take years to realize. We had a successful run Off-Broadway and then I went on to other things, having been cast in my second movie, The Big Chill.
My career started to take off, but the haunting character of Albert Nobbs never left me. In fact, she kept whispering to me, in her tentative, innocent manner, perched in her very own space in my heart. Albert was unforgettable because she embodies for me three human qualities that I find deeply compelling: innocence, a lack of self-pity and the capacity to be compelled by a dream.
Albert's innocence comes from the fact that she has never had any intimate relationships. Once she buries herself in the guise of a waiter, it is too dangerous for her to seek any human contact. In order to survive, she has to stay invisible. Because she is an innocent, Albert wields unconscious power. She does not judge her fellow man. Her face is like a mirror, causing people to react to her direct, unknowing gaze in ways that reveal, to themselves and to others, who they really are. Her innocence is also Chaplinesque—the funny-tragic face of the human comedy in which we are all players.
Albert's lack of self-pity is due to the fact that she doesn't think the world owes her anything. She is thankful to have found a façade that enables her to have gainful employment in an age when nameless, penniless, unmarried women ended up as streetwalkers or in the poor house. She worked hard and saved her money. She will never have to endure the shame and degradation of wretched poverty.
As a dreamer, ignorant of the fact that she lacks the tools to make her dream a reality, Albert gains our love and respect. I think all human beings are fed by dreams. We long to believe. We are moved by individuals who believe against-the-odds because nothing is easy for anyone and we want to believe that the impossible can, upon occasion, be possible.
Having started developing scripts and producing them as movies for television in the early 1990s, thoughts of Albert kept coming to mind. So in 1998, I optioned the rights to the original material—George Moore's novella, Albert Nobbs—and my journey began. Little did I know that it would take 14 years for the movie of Albert Nobbs to come to fruition!
The first step was to get a script written, so I pitched Albert's story to practically everyone I worked with in the ensuing years. It wasn't until I was directed by the great Istvan Szabo, in Meeting Venus, that Albert started to gain a little traction. Istvan loved the story and asked to write the treatment. He did a masterful job, introducing the fact that everyone in Morrison's Hotel has something to hide, not just Albert. He also introduced the idea of Albert's death at the end of the story. In the novella, Albert becomes obsessively penurious and isolated after Helen leaves her, until one day she just stops—death by broken heart. Istvan's long-time translator, Gabi Prekop, wanted the chance to write the script. She did a great job, but Gabi is Hungarian, not Irish, so I knew I needed someone with a deep knowledge of not only the Irish idiom, but also the 19th century Irish idiom. I called my friend, Stephen Frears, who suggested John Banville. Not yet addicted to Google-search, I didn't know at the time that John is considered one of the greatest living Irish writers. I'm glad I didn't or I may have gotten cold feet! As it turned out, I called him out-of-the-blue and was immediately entranced by his directness and his wonderfully dry sense of humor. I ended up contracting John to do the usual two versions and a brush-up.
So with a viable script in hand and Istvan, a world-class director, the second phase in bringing Albert to the screen began. It turned out to be the longest, most difficult phase of all—finding additional producers and the money! I have come to characterize independent films as films that almost DON'T get made. The process of finding funding sources who will stick with you through thick and thin is a great test of one's commitment, stamina, resilience and creativity. I proceeded to pitch the script to every studio and then every independent film company to which I could gain access. I reached out to certain wealthy individuals who I thought would respond to the themes of the story. I was very good at pitching. I could get people very excited, but when they read the script, they found it very difficult to imagine me as a waiter in 19th century Dublin. Or sometimes they would love the script and then would consult their lawyers who, I imagined said, "Have you lost your senses! Invest in a movie...over my dead body!"
I didn't resent it when people didn't "get it" and turned me down. I knew it was a hard sell. Besides me being dressed as a man, I knew that the humor was very subtle and that it would depend on the casting of actors who could play each part to perfection. I knew that the movie would be sexy, maybe a different kind of sexy—except for Helen and Joe—but sexy nevertheless. And I never stopped believing in the emotional power of Albert's predicament. Every night on stage, I had felt the audience being emotionally blindsided by this seemingly simple tale. I never stopped believing. We finally succeeded in cobbling together enough money to actually start pre-production. We hired a casting agent and started sifting through audition tapes and resumes. Istvan, Patrizia von Brandenstein, the inspired Production Designer, and I went to Ireland to reconnoiter possible locations. Everything seemed to be falling into place. We just needed a few final pieces in our carefully constructed house of cards.
I went to the Toronto Film Festival in 2001 in search of our last chunk of funds. Having met with some exciting possibilities, I was in the cab, on my way to the airport on September 11, when we heard on the radio that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. I thought it was a joke—like Orson Wells' War of the Worlds—but by the time I'd gotten to the lounge, all of us gathered around the TV screens saw the second plane hit the second tower. The Toronto airport shut down and it was only through the compassion and generosity of two Canadian friends of mine that I was able to be reunited with my thirteen-year old daughter, who was home just outside the city and who had friends who lost family members on that tragic day. I was driven by my friends across the border and down through the gorgeous Finger Lakes region of New York. It took us ten hours. It was a stunningly beautiful day, in dire contrast to the living hell that had exploded in my city. I got to my child and with her, and millions of others, witnessed the end of the world, as we knew it. The funding for Nobbs fell apart and we lost our window of opportunity. I went on to other jobs, as did Istvan and Patrizia.
Last fall, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was back at the Toronto Film Festival, surrounded by Team Nobbs, presenting our movie at a sold-out gala screening. It was an unbelievably moving moment for us all. So much had happened in the intervening ten years. Istvan Szabo was replaced by Rodrigo Garcia. Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn and Alan Moloney had come aboard to produce with me. We had finally made our movie in 34 days for just under 8 million dollars. Patrizia had come back and worked her magic. Michael McDonough was our Director of Photography and Pierre-Yves Gayraud our Costume Designer. The equally brilliant Matthew Mungle (Make-up) and Martial Corneville (Wig maker and hair stylist) had worked through rigorous hair and make-up tests in order to come up with the look for me as Albert and Janet McTeer as Hubert. We were joined by a truly inspired ensemble of actors: Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker, Pauline Collins, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys Meyer, Mark Williams, John Light, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and others. At Toronto, Albert Nobbs got a standing ovation.
Five years ago, when Albert Nobbs was still an unrealized dream, I asked myself, "Should I battle on? Is it unrealistic? Have I gotten too old to play Albert? Should I throw in the towel?" I stood in the middle of the room and came to the decision that I was not willing to give up—that there were things in Albert's story that I still felt to be globally relevant—violence against women, poverty, exploitation, people having to live with secrets in order to survive, people feeling disenfranchised and isolated in a rapidly changing world. The most powerful stories for me are the ones that seem simple—even placed in another era—but that stir things in us that are largely unarticulated and buried. A key line in Albert Nobbs is: "We are all disguised as ourselves." To feel apart may be part of the human DNA, but it makes us carry in us the need to be safe and connected. Albert's dream of two easy chairs in front of a warm fire is an elemental dream. So I girded my loins and jumped back into the producing fray. On January 27th, all of us on Team Nobbs humbly offer our labor of love to the world. What a journey it has been!