Essays

Feminism, Glenn Close, and the Curse of the Crazy Woman

By posted at 12:00 pm on June 29, 2017 15

As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favorite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.

covercoverAnd indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.

While Glenn Close boasts a career spanning more than 40 years and dozens of awards, including six Oscar nominations, she’s still best-known for her portrayal of Alex, a woman who attempts to murder her married lover in a fugue of jealousy and rage. The story of Alex—otherwise known as 1987’s Fatal Attraction, the film for which Close received one of those six nominations—is one whose histrionics and gendered ableism have brought with it both critique and dismissal in the three decades since its release. And though Close herself has undoubtedly continued to thrive, she also hasn’t been able to escape its shadow.

coverSuch a legacy may sound like a curse—but then, Close does crazy so well. This spring, she returned to Broadway to reprise the starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, and she’s as captivating onstage as she is in her best movies. Once more, she takes on Norma Desmond, the silent film actress fixated on her past glory from the shadows of obscurity, still ready for her closeup decades after the world has moved on to talkies (and to younger leading ladies). The plot ignites when Desmond hires screenwriter Joe Gillis to doctor the script that she’s convinced will spell out her big comeback, and though his capture isn’t quite as obvious as the one masterminded by Misery’s Annie, his gradual (co-)dependence on his new benefactress proves to be just as deadly.

Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. But despite this, Close somehow succeeds in recreating a character whose humanity permeates the Palace Theatre, like a furious cloud of gold that envelops audience all the way up to the nosebleeds.

Close is good, almost distractingly so. As an audience member, I spent as much time enjoying the production as I did wondering just how she does it. Is it the suppleness and subtlety of her craft, for which James Lipton once praised her on Inside the Actor’s Studio? Is it the way she injects even the most heartrending of Desmond’s dramatics with narcotic, knowing camp? Is it in the way her presence, as commanding as her voice—its raw power somehow undiminished as the 70-year-old scales countless flights of stairs over the course of the 200-minute show—so masterfully balances bottled panic with profound and searching pain? Whatever the reason, only a seasoned artist could embody the crazy woman, a figure infamous for her unwantedness, without sacrificing an ounce of soul, or a whit of glamour.

Her performance is all the more remarkable considering the fact that humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded, as critics of Fatal Attraction were quick to point out. This archetype, the creation of a society in which a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalized, silenced, or worse, is deep in the bedrock of our culture. Though Alex and Norma embody slightly different kinds of failed female revolt—the former as a woman professional, the latter as a woman artist—both are in conversation with hysteria, one of the 19th century’s most prevalent (and most gendered) diseases of the West. On film and in subsequent stage adaptations, Boulevard’s subtextual warning that women’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfillment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing still comes through loud and clear. After all, the original film, released in 1950, starred a woman who was born in the heyday of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the study of nervous conditions who urged Charlotte Perkins Gilman to treat her hysteria by abstaining from her work as a writer, and to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil,” as long as she lived.

But even in the 21st century, Desmond still exists in the crosshairs of the 20th, an unsettling bridging of contemporary and Victorian gender dynamics. Regardless from which perspective she’s viewed, she’s still forced to star in the spectacle of her own artistic destruction, and as the villain, to boot. Such is her due, for the woman who is too needy (which means she believes she deserves happiness); too self-obsessed (though that same brand of self-obsession is how Boulevard’s Joe aims to fight his way to stardom); or too selfish (another quality that Gillis, played almost dandily by Michael Xavier, can unquestioningly deploy), no success goes unpunished.

More revealing than the spectacle of the crazy woman are the ebbs and flows of her presence in popular culture. At the moment, the cynical rehashing of old classics and dreamscapes for new entertainment is all the rage. One of the most prominent characteristics of the so-called Golden Age of Television is its mobilization of nostalgia, exhuming artists overlooked or misunderstood because of their gender (as well as other identities; nothing, least of all the crazy woman archetype, is untouched by the ravages of white supremacy). Slowly but surely, we’re beginning to revisit geniuses once dismissed as too narcissistic (Nina Simone), mercenary (Joan Crawford and Bette Davis), or selfish (Eartha Kitt) to be taken seriously. Though an incredible boon to the viewers of our time, none of this, of course, does Desmond, and the dead women she represents, any good: After all, it was the unforgivable sin of insanity, and not her own artistry, that garnered her a place in the celluloid pantheon.

The spectacle of female humanity was recently addressed by Jess Zimmerman in her brilliant Role Monsters series with an essay on the rapacious, relentless harpy. “In isolation,” writes Zimmerman, “female ambition is laudable, the kind of thing asset management firms make statues about. In context, it’s considered monstrous.” Even now, at a time when American women can ascribe to feminism with comparatively little fanfare, insisting on one’s own humanity as a woman is still an act of monstrosity—one with which ugliness and craziness, the two things that women are supposed to fear most, is always elided.

With Sunset Boulevard, Close returns to the stage at a time in which women and non-cis-male people across demographics are watching a reinvigorated assault on hard-won rights and liberties. While the monstrosities of misogyny and sexism play out in daily life, her embodiment of a woman made monstrous by her desire for better feels a lot like bearing witness. Curse though it may be, it’s also Close’s most beautiful legacy.

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15 Responses to “Feminism, Glenn Close, and the Curse of the Crazy Woman”

  1. Moe Murph
    at 8:57 am on June 30, 2017

    Serendipitous that this essay appears today, so soon after yet another deflection from the issues via attack on a woman”s mental state by #45.

    I an not the only one who has made this observation, but this very website’s comment section is rife with a slew of such attacks against women with the temerity to disagree with certain prolific commenters’ opinions. Among other terms that have been used to describe me, that can think of off the top of my head:

    Obsessive-compulsive, hysterical, determined to find offense, humorless, and the good old all-purpose medical term: “Nuts.”

    We see you.

    Moe

  2. H.A.
    at 5:54 pm on July 4, 2017

    My understanding was that Close derided the portrayal of a women unhinged in Fatal Attraction, as she recognized years later the ramping up or exaggeration of a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder (or hysteria long ago), a severe non psychotic illness which causes great suffering and is engendered by early neglect and abandonment, and often sexual assault. This neediness caused by abandonment is scorned – to be deemed needy is the worst and yet to need is to be human. A reminder: women with borderline personality disorder are capable of great compassion and empathy, despite what Harvard proffesor Dr. Baron Cohen states in his book (can’t remember title) where he lumps women with BPD in with anti-social personality disorder and incapable of empathy. Excellent essay though.

  3. Sean H
    at 10:09 pm on July 6, 2017

    Well, change comes slow. Misogyny and sexism are monstrous, certainly, but where is the data about just HOW prevalent they are? If anything, the world of 2017 is vastly improved over the world of 1917, or 1947, or 1977, and we’re moving in the right direction on gender equality. Is it perfect yet? No, far from it, but I just wish the ID politics crowd could step out of the vacuum of the now and add a little historical context, or to show me some evidence that this problem is doing anything but getting better. It’s almost like they want women to continue be oppressed (or be perceived as every bit as oppressed as they were a hundred years ago) in order to validate their own worldview.
    As for Glenn Close, her legacy isn’t determined just by a showy role in Fatal Attraction. Damages continues to grow in regard as a critically acclaimed moment in the development of prestige TV, and her reputation as a film actress with over 50 credits, including fine work in Nine Lives, Cookie’s Fortune, Reversal of Fortune, The Natural, and The World According to Garp, is far closer to the hearts of cineastes than boiling rabbits (though I do think Adrian Lyne is a provocative European-style filmmaker whose body of work is impressive in its own right). Close also stops mid-play and tells people to put their damn phones away, so kudos to her for preserving the sanctity of the theatrical experience.

  4. Moe Murph
    at 9:24 am on July 7, 2017

    @SeanH @SwogHolllow

    Just going to recycle a little Swog Hollow from an earlier piece on Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I am confident you will deem Swog one of that fine cohort of “clear-headed white male empiricists.”

    I believe this pretty much covers the waterfront.

    [Sean,

    Still “I refuse to think that somehow by mere dint of one’s status as a woman or a POC, they are somehow more fit to judge the objective reality of a situation than an objective, clear-headed white male empiricist”

    Is something you should think hard about. Women and POC probably know more than you about what it’s like to be a woman or POC. Try listening a little more and being turned off by the messaging a little less.]

    “End Swog Hollow”

  5. H.A.
    at 10:10 am on July 7, 2017

    Sean – good point re Close’s legacy not determined by one film.
    Moe – fight the good fight. xo

  6. Sean H
    at 4:00 pm on July 7, 2017

    Hey Moe,
    I’m all for taking criticism as well as dishing it out, but what’s wrong with being a clear-headed empiricist? I simply do not think that “women and POC probably know more than you about what it’s like to be a woman or POC” because THERE IS NO SUCH THING as “what it’s like to be a woman or POC.” There is no such thing as what it’s like to be a woman. There is no such thing as what it’s like to be gay. There is no such thing as what it’s like to be black. Etc, etc. This universalizing is the basis of racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination. To say that because someone is a member of a group that they INHERENTLY are a certain way, that’s racism. To say women are more emotional. To say blacks like fried chicken. To say that whites can’t dance. There is no universal experience of what it’s like to be ANYTHING.

  7. Moe Murph
    at 6:16 am on July 9, 2017

    “There is no such thing as what it’s like to be a woman.”

    Well, bless your heart.

    Moe Murph
    Over and out on this thread

  8. steven augustine
    at 11:06 am on July 9, 2017

    @Sean

    Much of what you’ve written up there (against Essentialism) is Spot On… BUT (there’s always a but): look to the definition of “Empirical”. Doesn’t it privilege direct experience over observation-at-a-remove and hearsay? In other words, in discussions of Sexism/ Racism, wouldn’t Women and POC function as better “Empiricists” on the topics than Het White Fellers? Which is not to say that Women or POC *own* these conversations, but their (our) contributions, empirically speaking, are going to be more relevant than yours.

    As a Het male POC, I wouldn’t dare to presume to relativize the suffering/ Othering/second-classing of Women… for two reasons: 1) the Relative intensity of a pain is meaningless to anyone in Pain (ie, being drawn-and-quartered has got to hurt worse than a serious tooth ache, but tell that to someone with a serious tooth ache, in lieu of giving them morphine) 2) how would I know, from direct experience, how bad Sexism is now, compared to “then”, and should anyone be grateful that an absolutely unnecessary (but convenient) Evil has eased somewhat in a century? Surely there will be an urgency about making *all* of the Evil disappear? Especially if the Evil impacts one directly.

    But (again): it doesn’t impact *you* directly; from your distance, things appear to have gotten so much better that you feel people with complaints are exaggerating. You aren’t in possession of enough Empirical Evidence to judge; as a good Empiricist, you should be able to admit that.

    In ’95, I came back to America after a long absence and stayed with married friends in a lovely house by the lake. My old (White) friend had her own dog-walking/ sitting business and asked me, one morning, to check on dogs in two different houses (masters away on vacation). Doing this for her would have entailed letting myself into nice big houses in largely-White neighborhoods at the crack of dawn. Hilarious, right? I’m a Black guy of six feet tall… even wearing white tie and tails wouldn’t have helped. I had to beg off the request. My old friend thought I was being paranoid. She lectured me that there had been lots of “changes” in the US since I had left (remember, this lecture came to me in ’95) and that I had to “face these changes” and “move on”. Racism, she told me, was becoming a thing of the past. Nothing I could say could convince her otherwise.

    Don’t be like *that*, Sean! laugh.

    PS “There is no such thing as what it’s like to be black. Etc, etc.”

    But there is definitely such a thing as what it’s like to be persecuted/ degraded for being “black etc. etc”.

  9. Sean H
    at 11:06 pm on July 12, 2017

    I mostly hear where you’re coming from, Steven (and thanks as always for an articulate response), but there is such a thing as letting one’s life be too muhc governed by fear. If no black people take the job of dogwalker/dogsitter because of a fear of being perceived as a robber and shot by the cops, then progress never comes, right? Is it more dangerous for a woman to walk alone at night? Yes, but the women who do so in spite of the risk are the real feminists, no?
    Also, empiricism can cut both ways. I understand and fully agree with your point about direct observation (in a Masters & Johnson sort of way; you can’t just ASK people what they do in the bedroom, you have to literally observe and record stuff). But that said, certain experiences bias people. Are people who have lost children to drunk drivers really capable of being empirical about DWI laws? Should the widows of people who were killed on 9/11 be in charge of anti-terrorism policies? Too little experience is bad for empiricism, but so is too much.

  10. steven augustine
    at 1:58 am on July 13, 2017

    Sean!

    Ugh, as they say. Seriously: ugh. This is borderline loony (and a new kind of magical thinking, possibly):

    “If no black people take the job of dogwalker/dogsitter because of a fear of being perceived as a robber and shot by the cops, then progress never comes, right? Is it more dangerous for a woman to walk alone at night? Yes, but the women who do so in spite of the risk are the real feminists, no?”

    Sean, how will we put an end to Nigerian email scammers if *you’re* too risk-averse (and cowardly, even), to engage with them? More importantly, how will women put an end to domestic abuse if they keep selfishly leaving abusive households instead of sticking with it and taking beatings in the name of eventual progress that will come, after all the abusive husbands and “lovers” are simply worn out from beating them, posthumously?

    Well, I tried.

    Signed,

    Articulate Black Guy Steven

    PS And no, I will not “hijack” this thread with an off-piste cluster of responses to more and possibly equally absurd rejoinders. I have to mow the lawn, or something, instead. But, yeah: ugh.

  11. Sean H
    at 3:14 am on July 13, 2017

    Come on man! You’re better than that, Augustine. You’re totally distorting what I say with limp analogies. If you’re going to use domestic abuse as an analogy, what you’re saying by refusing to water plants for a white family in a rich neighborhood is: “Because some women get beaten by their spouses or boyfriends, why bother dating at all.” Show a little gumption, man.
    Or look at it from the other side; what you are saying is that, by your logic of irrational fear, you would encourage a white person to reject a black friend who lived in “the ghetto” who asked the white guy to dogsit/be in such a neighborhood at a perceived “dangerous” time. How is that not furthering the problem? America (and the first-world west in general) is WAY safer than it’s ever been, and even taking into account that the request you received was 20 years ago, it still was recent enough to be a pretty safe activity. People live in fear because of the media. Crime is a fraction of what it was in the 70s. America is safe as hell and there’s very little violent street crime.
    Do black people sometimes get harassed by the cops in wealthy, largely white neighborhoods where there are hardly any black people? Sure. And on super super rare occasions they even get assaulted, and on even rarer occasions they get killed. Do white people sometimes get harassed by the natives in lower class urban neighborhoods where there are very few white people? Sure. And on super super rare occasions they even get assaulted, and on even rarer occasions they get killed. But to give up on interraciality or to just assume you will be the victim of violence if you “cross lines” is too fearful for me to support as being anything remotely approaching a logical or empirical approach to living one’s life.

  12. toad
    at 12:11 pm on July 13, 2017

    Sean

    Steve didn’t distort what you said. You said:

    “If no black people take the job of dogwalker/dogsitter because of a fear of being perceived as a robber and shot by the cops, then progress never comes, right? Is it more dangerous for a woman to walk alone at night? Yes, but the women who do so in spite of the risk are the real feminists, no?”

    This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. I have no words for this stupidity.
    Congratulations.

  13. toad
    at 12:28 pm on July 13, 2017

    This line is just classic. I can’t get over it. You have to break your brain in order to process the logic in this.

    “Is it more dangerous for a woman to walk alone at night? Yes, but the women who do so in spite of the risk are the real feminists.”

    Somebody should create a meme. The opportunities are endless.

    “Is it more dangerous to drive a car into a brick wall? Yes, but the dudes who do so in spite of the risk are the real car enthusiasts.”

    “Is it more dangerous to inject fentanyl? Yes, but the people who do in spite of the risk are the real daredevils.”

    “Is it more dangerous to eat 12,000 calories per day? Yes, but the people who do in spite of the risk are the real foodies.”

    “Is it more dangerous to jump down a mineshaft? Yes, but the kids who do in spite of the risk are the real athletes.”

  14. steven augustine
    at 12:55 pm on July 13, 2017

    (har!)

  15. Sean H
    at 4:41 pm on July 14, 2017

    Toad,

    You just compared walking alone at night to driving a car into a wall. How am I the one with logical flaws in my rhetoric?

    Really, think about it. All your comparative examples are ridiculously dangerous. A woman walking alone at night is the essence of “take back the night,” it is the absolute essence of feminism–that a woman has every right to walk by herself at night that a man has, and that she should do so with just as much freedom and ease, and without fear of reprisal or harassment.

    You don’t have to break your brain at all to see the difference between my examples and yours.

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