Glenn Close’s eight Oscar nominations, achieved over the course of a career in film that has spanned over four decades, clearly map out the actress’s commitment to characters that fiercely defy genre and gender conventions. Strong, progressive single moms and wives, a forlorn, unstable lover who will just not be ignored, a scheming and sexually liberated marquise in pre-revolution France, a butler in 19th century Dublin who has concealed her real identity for 30 years in an effort to gain financial independence, and a writer who finds the strength to reclaim her career and talent for herself after living too long in the shadow of her famous husband: a kaleidoscope of women who, in idiosyncratic ways, oppose or rebel against the socially sanctioned narratives written unto them. Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance, the boisterous and colorful matriarch at the heart of Hillbilly Elegy, is no different.
Within the economy of a film that resists any politicization and – if we are being honest – any attempt at tone modulation, Close’s performance offers much needed moments of levity and comic relief (“which one of you can spell Mississippi?” she asks her grandkid JD’s deadbeat friends before unceremoniously kicking them off her porch) as well as the only junctures in which any dramatic tension feels fully earned. In Close’s likely-to-be Oscar clip, Mamaw urges a young JD to get his act together if he wants a shot at making anything out of himself. If the speech is written rather generically, it is Close’s uncanny talent to imbue dialogue with her own eyes that elevates this pep talk into a small masterpiece in pathos and intuitiveness. Mamaw’s fearsome, teary gaze moves between the kid and the empty space that separates the two characters, vacillating between pride and regret, anger and shame, her delivery alternatively forceful and choked as the grandmother scolds JD and implicitly admits to her own personal responsibility in having perpetuated the family’s cycles of abuse – physical and emotional – and having ultimately failed her daughter. Amidst a group of characters all operating at either 0 or 100 the entire time, Mamaw comes alive with layers and shading uniquely thanks to Close’s attention to the small details of her inner world – her ambiguous feelings towards having to parent JD so late in her life, her tempestuous yet loving relationship with her husband, the amoral familism that roots every single decision she makes, even her penchant for zingers and one-liners – creating a much-needed center of gravity for the entire film.
Close’s ability to bring subtext to such vivid life is perhaps the trademark of her craft – think of Alex Forrest’s placid, deranged grin after her physical altercation with Dan in Fatal Attraction, or de Merteuil removing her make-up to concede defeat at the end of Dangerous Liaisons, or Joan Castleman’s searing side-eye during her husband’s Nobel acceptance speech in The Wife – but her effort never feels calculated or actorly: in spite of facial prosthetics, baggy clothes and puppy shirts, and her now-infamous wiry gray wig, Close’s Mamaw is a fully lived-in performance that never comes across as a caricature or a stunt. The depth and accuracy of this characterization – easily the most transformative work among the twenty performances nominated this year – is even more apparent when contrasted with the footage of the real Bonnie Vance that runs over the end credits: it is then that you notice the same subtle hand gestures, the same broad smile, the same pensive eyes to go with the more obvious, yet startling physical resemblance.
No two Glenn Close performances are alike – a marker of the actor’s versatility and her special genius for reinvention – but Mamaw is proof that in her early 70s Close is still willing to challenge herself, push the boundaries of her craft, and embrace difficult projects. The actress’ overdue narrative resurfaces every time she is in contention for an Oscar nomination – she is one of the five most nominated actresses in Academy Award history alongside Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Geraldine Page, but the only one among them to remain winless to date. The reality is that, at 74, Glenn Close has nothing left to prove and does not need an Oscar. The Oscar needs her.