As a perfectly mannered, perfectly tortured WASP wife and mother who welcomes her grown son home to watch him die of AIDS, Glenn Close pulls off In the Gloaming‘s toughest, juiciest acting role. She also gets outstanding support from Robert Sean Leonard (as the stricken son), David Strathairn (the distant father and husband), Bridget Fonda (the chilly sister), and Whoopi Goldberg (the wise nurse). But in the overall picture of making this one-hour cable drama, debuting April 20 on HBO, there’s no question that first-time director Christopher Reeve is the show’s star.
As Leonard puts it, ”To have someone on your set who cannot move, but who’s in charge, is a rather incredible thing. Most first-time directors have a hard time with the chaos that goes on. [They tend to] put lots of the decisions on the cinematographer’s shoulders. Not Chris. He held his own … He was the anchor.”
That much is immediately clear one October afternoon, three weeks into Gloaming‘s monthlong production. It’s a day that finds cast and crew working anxiously to film in the gloaming itself — a Scottish term for dusk, which will last less than 90 minutes at this country-house location in Pound Ridge, N.Y.
In the midst of the temporal-imperative hubbub, Christopher Reeve, moored in his $40,000 Quickie wheelchair, is indeed an island of calm. The rise-and-fall wheeze of his respirator —- Reeve’s constant companion since the May 1995 equestrian spill that paralyzed him from the shoulders down — at first strikes a startlingly Darth Vader-like note to an arriving visitor; it’s a reminder that he must remain more or less quarantined from his cast, since the hissing sounds would ruin the actors’ voice recordings. He’ll watch and listen to all the day’s scenes from a room off set via TV monitors and headphones. When he’s got instructions to give, a microphone carries his voice to a speaker situated next to the actors.
The cast teasingly refers to Reeve as ”his omniscience” for his ability to interject from afar. But instead of issuing orders like some overbearing deity, the artist formerly known as Superman comes on like a thespian’s patron saint. The actors are his babies, and when he sees one of them looking tired or unsure, he sends out nurturing praise through his high-tech umbilical cord. ”Not to worry, Glennie, we’ll get there,” he tells Close during a demanding series of takes.
Later, Close bounds in from the patio. She’s been rehearsing an out-of-breath ”Danny Boy,” sung as an a cappella lullaby to her character’s ravaged son. Choked with emotion, her rendition will be one of Gloaming‘s poignant zeniths (”Keep it rusty, not polished,” advises Reeve). Right now, though, the surprisingly petite actress isn’t worrying about how to make the film better. She’s thinking about how she might use it — and Reeve’s poster-boy-for-worthy-causes status — to do some good.
”Harlem Hospital is under siege,” she tells Reeve, excitedly proposing a scenario for a charity event that could feature Gloaming as a funding lure. She outlines the cause charmingly to her old friend, who in his pre-accident days took up countless liberal crusades with Close, Leonard, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and others as part of the activist group Creative Coalition. ”It could be wonderful,” Close enthuses. ”They usually have these black-tie dinners that are so f—ing boring.”