The actress looks back on three decades of memorable movies — from ''The Big Chill'' to ''Fatal Attraction'' to the new ''Albert Nobbs,'' which could finally bring her Oscar gold

By Adam Markovitz
December 30, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

A barely audible ”Wow” is the first thing out of Glenn Close’s mouth — followed by a throaty laugh — when she looks at a printed-out copy of her own filmography over lunch at a West Village café on a recent weekday. She rifles through her purse for reading glasses, comes up empty, and settles for holding the papers at arm’s length and squinting with a dumbstruck grin. ”I never would’ve thought I had done so many,” she marvels in that voice, still commandingly patrician at 64. ”I don’t keep count. It goes on for three pages?” It does indeed — starting with her movie debut as the headstrong Jenny Fields in 1982’s The World According to Garp and extending to her most recent turn as a cross-dressing Irish waiter in Albert Nobbs, the wistful R-rated period drama. Garp brought Close the first of her five Oscar nominations, and Nobbs — which has already earned her SAG and Golden Globe nods — may be her best shot ever at finally winning the elusive prize.

The movie is the end of a decadelong drought of starring film roles for Close, who has kept herself busy racking up Emmys as the viperish lawyer Patty Hewes on TV’s legal series Damages. Albert Nobbs has also been the actress’ passion project ever since she played the role Off Broadway in 1982 — she co-produced the film, co-wrote its script, and gushes like a new mom about its arrival on the big screen. But with a little prodding, Close agrees to leave Nobbs behind momentarily for a tour of the iconic roles that led up to it. Individually, the performances are near-magical feats of transformation. But together they make up one of the most respected — and reproachably under-awarded — careers in the business. ”Wow” is right.

The World According to Garp (1982)
After spotting Close on Broadway in the 1980 musical Barnum, director George Roy Hill knew he’d found his Jenny Fields for the movie adaptation of John Irving’s oddball coming-of-age novel. But for the actress, jumping from stage to screen wasn’t so simple. ”I talked really loud because I was used to projecting from a stage,” says Close. ”And also my energy — I thought I would blow out the camera because I didn’t know how to pull it in.” The movie also marked the dramatic film debut of spark-plug-brained comedian Robin Williams, who starred as Jenny’s son, Garp. ”People would say, ‘Is Robin always like that?’ But when he wasn’t ‘on,’ he was very soft-spoken, and very vulnerable.” From the beginning, Close wasn’t afraid to go to the mat for her characters’ best interests. ”I fought for a look that I thought was convincing when [my character] aged. My best friend, Mary Beth Hurt, was also in Garp, and her wig was terrible. And she never did anything about it. Sounds like I’m all about wigs — well, I think any actress will be nodding her head in agreement.”

The Big Chill (1983)
With one look at a cast photo of this dramedy about a reunion of college friends, Close launches into a sort of graduate seminar on late-20th-century Hollywood bed-hopping. ”Now, I had dated Kevin [Kline],” she explains, using the picture as a diagram. ”And my best friend, Mary Beth, had been married to Bill Hurt. At a reading we did in New York, she read the part of Mary Kay Place. And she had just broken up with Kevin.” She laughs. ”It was a little incestuous.” The cast’s bond made Close ambivalent about being singled out by the Academy for her turn as the earthy, maternal Sarah. ”I think my crying-in-the-shower scene had something to do with it,” she says. ”Hollywood loves to see naked. Naked or dead.”

The Natural (1984)
Close was handpicked by star Robert Redford to play Iris Gaines, the saintly single mother abandoned by a talented ballplayer (Redford). Another year, another Best Supporting Actress nod, although Close credits this one to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel: ”That hat was designed so the sunlight would come through. We waited for a certain time of day, so the sun was shining through the back of the stadium. And he had a lens that muted the people around me. It was an incredibly well-thought-out shot. And I honestly think that’s the reason I got nominated.”

Fatal Attraction (1987)
Alex Forrest, the woman whose obsession with a married man (Michael Douglas) pushes her to madness, may be the most iconic role of Close’s career. It was also the hardest for her to get. ”[The producers] didn’t even want me to audition,” says Close, who — much like Alex — refused to be ignored. ”They didn’t think I could be sexy.” She proved them wrong — and created an endlessly imitated ’80s look. ”The hair and makeup tests for this movie were some of the most rigorous I’ve ever done. The trickiest thing was the mouth shape, because it was very, very subtle. But we ended up filling in this little dip here [at the top of the lip, just beneath the nose] because it made her mouth sadder. It’s all subliminal, but that changed her.” Close famously disagreed with director Adrian Lyne over the movie’s macabre ending, and still thinks her character deserved more empathy. ”[The producers] were right as far as satisfying the audience, giving them catharsis: The bad person is dead. But she wasn’t just a bad person. When people say, ‘You’ve played so many evil characters’…Alex is not on my list. The only evil person I’ve played as far as I’m concerned is Cruella De Vil.”

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Close calls the sinister Marquise de Merteuil ”one of the great roles” of her career, and it’s easy to see why. As she tangles with the equally devious Valmont (John Malkovich) in a game of sexual one-upmanship in 18th-century France, the marquise shows layer after layer of twisted emotion — not to mention plenty of corset-straining cleavage. ”I had just given birth to my daughter,” Close recalls, gazing at a photo of her character’s décolletage with unconcealed pride. ”She was seven weeks old when I went to Paris. My breasts were pretty big. They could’ve made them look like that, I suppose, but it was all real.”

Reversal of Fortune (1990)
”I remember telling Jeremy Irons he would be an absolute idiot if he didn’t do this movie,” says Close, who knew the actor from their 1984 Broadway stint in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Luckily, Irons took her advice and signed on to play Claus von Bülow, the real-life blue blood who was convicted, then acquitted, of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny (Close), after she fell into a coma. ”I wasn’t allowed to even talk to anyone who knew the real Sunny von Bülow. I feel that I would’ve given a better performance if I [had],” admits Close, who used the scant details she had to paint a darkly comic portrait of the heiress. ”The scene that made me want to do the movie is the one where she’s at the dinner table wearing dark glasses, smoking, eating an ice cream sundae,” says the actress, noting that Sunny was hypoglycemic. ”She was basically killing herself in front of everybody. And no words. It was pretty fabulous.”

Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton’s sci-fi spoof is one of the rare critical duds on Close’s résumé. And yet… ”Ah! I just loved it!” she says of playing the Pat Nixon-style wife of a U.S. president (Jack Nicholson). The actress had been eager to work with Burton ever since seeing 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. ”I adooored that movie,” she purrs. ”I wrote Johnny Depp a letter after I saw it.”

101 Dalmatians (1996) and 102 Dalmatians (2000)
”The women [I played] after Fatal Attraction were all pretty interesting characters. And then came Cruella,” Close says of her witchy turn in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s classic dog tale and its 2000 sequel. The first movie grossed $136 million — but it came at a price for Close’s career. ”When you play a character that huge, it’s so hard for people to think you can do anything subtle.” Still, the actress says she relished the chance to play such a legendary villainess. ”When I first got the script, I didn’t think she was mean enough. So with Disney’s permission I went back to the original and just took lines. And the meaner she was, the funnier she became. I had to totally commit to being bad in order to be funny.”

Air Force One (1997)
When Close got a last-minute call to play Vice President Kathryn Bennett in Wolfgang Petersen’s action pic about a kidnapped U.S. president (Harrison Ford), she cut corners to make it work. ”That’s a wig from my own collection because I had short, short hair and we didn’t have time to make a new one,” she says. But there was one point on which Close was inflexible. ”They had written a scene of her breaking down and crying. And I said, ‘I will not do that.’ Because I thought we’d be doing women a disfavor if we had that clichéd moment where she breaks down.” The actress also enjoyed the no-nonsense approach of Petersen, who would prep his actors on how much they needed to emote for the camera for any given shot. ”We’d all be sitting around the table and he’d say [pointing to various actors], ‘Acting, acting, no acting, no acting, AAACTING.’ Meaning, for this take, you’re either on the spot or not.”

Albert Nobbs (2011)
A handcrafted wig, prosthetic ears, and a fake nose-tip helped make the actress convincingly masculine for the part of a humble gender-bending waiter who dreams of a better life. But Close says passing for a man wasn’t the hardest part of playing Albert Nobbs. ”I was determined to create a character where it didn’t make the people in the movie seem stupid if they thought I was a man. It’s not just about playing a different gender — it’s about playing someone who has been invisible for 30 years,” she explains. ”It was the biggest challenge of my entire career. Oh, yeah. Definitely.”