June is LGBTQ Pride Month, so we’re featuring fabulous queer frock flicks each Thursday. Queer folks have always been part of human history, long before there were words to describe these identities and orientations. But now we can and will say GAY! (and LESBIAN! and BI! and TRANS! and QUEER!) proudly, whether or not others try to legislate or pray it away.
Glenn Close first performed this role on the stage in 1982, and was inspired to bring it to film as the movie Albert Nobbs (2011). It’s based on a short story about a woman who dresses as a man to work as a waiter in a fancy Irish hotel in the late 19th century. Is this a lesbian or transgender story? Maybe. It’s definitely a story about the fluidity of gender identity and gender expression, and in the period the story is set, there weren’t a lot of ways to describe such a thing. The main character can barely talk about who she is at all. She is completely hidden, from the world and perhaps even herself. As Glenn Close said in Irish Central:
“Deception is not an unnatural state for humans. It just becomes dire when you discover you can’t take off the mask. Or there are reasons for you to fear that if you do there will be sanctions and you will be discriminated against.”
Albert Nobbs began hiding due to trauma early in life and has only the faintest dream of earning enough money to leave the hotel and set up a shop. It’s not until Albert meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) that she imagines a life with companionship, even though Albert had only the vaguest idea what that might mean. Hubert is also a woman living as a man, and she’s married to another woman (who lives as a woman), so you could say they’re a lesbian couple. But Hubert is something of her own enigma like Albert — both characters present as male because that’s what they feel comfortable with, for their own reasons, regardless of what gender they were assigned as at birth. Where Albert is hiding in men’s clothes, Hubert is free and easy in men’s clothes.
In IndieWire, Janet McTeer said of the film and these characters:
“I always thought that it was wonderful that it was made in a time before labels. Straight woman, straight couple, gay man, gay woman, cross-gender … they weren’t. There’s something slightly … boundary-less about it. It’s ultimately about people, in the end, becoming who they are, being themselves and what makes them comfortable. It’s a concept that we supposedly find much easier today.”
And McTeer elaborated in Go Magazine:
“I really felt that Hubert should be everything that Albert wanted and everything that Albert wasn’t; though, as a character, you’re also a function in a piece. I just felt that Hubert was confident, funny, peaceful, happy and very much at peace as a human being. That’s what Albert sees. That’s what Albert emulates and wants to become. And the only way to do that was to play somebody who wasn’t hiding as a man, but somebody who was actually free as a man. So, instead of portraying Hubert as someone who had become a man to escape abuse, which is true, I think Hubert remained a man because Hubert found it to be the most comfortable. I thought that was really important.”
The scene of these two on the beach shows how their male-presenting lives are significant and essential to their characters, though in different ways. Hubert is the happy ideal, while Albert is still repressed. Glenn Close goes into detail in an interview on Spinning Platters:
“I think that if Albert was ever going to learn about her sexuality, it was going to be sometime down the road. She never got to ask Hubert the most important question, which is: how did you do it? But she said, “I found a woman who had a business. I had a business. We started living together. It was a great situation: she had her work, I had my work. And then when people started talking, we got married.” So it just seemed like a business proposition, and I think because that is safety for Albert, that’s how she thinks of it: as a business proposition. But when she goes to Hubert and Cathleen’s house and walks into somebody’s living room for the first time, and she sees those two chairs and that fireplace and that clock, that starts to represent for her that safety and that connection, which she realizes is what she’s never had.”
The complexities these characters face are subtly contrasted with Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who stays at the hotel with his wife and another couple. In one scene, Albert brings breakfast to the viscount’s room and the his male friend is seen naked in bed. At the hotel’s fancy costume ball, both the viscount and that same gentleman are wearing “costumes” of women’s evening gowns, though rather sloppily and drunkenly. The usually quite snooty and proper hotel manager has no complaints, however, because that is a rich and titled lord. As Glenn Close said in Irish Central:
“The viscount is a young gay man who can pay what he likes and get away with whatever he likes. His money protects him, but Albert doesn’t have that luxury.”
With a this delicate and engrossing story, the costumes are a muted, appropriate background. Pierre-Yves Gayraud gives everyone a solid 1890s style, and, of course, much makeup, hair, and prosthetics work was done to make Glenn Close and Janet McTeer look their parts. In a Below the Line interview, Gayraud talked about how he imagined Albert figuring out what few clothes she could afford and how to make them look right:
“In the secret shadow of his bedroom, he makes his own alteration to find the best masculine silhouette he can. Of course it’s not the easiest thing to design this sort of costume because you have to find the balance between an imperfect costume and a good look.”
The designer also researched photography and films from Ireland, Scotland, and England dating around the end of the 19th century up to 1905, and French and Irish paintings of the era were important:
“I particularly love [French painter] Felix Valloton, who had such an incredible sense to sketch the silhouettes with strong colors which was unusual for this time. From the beginning when we discussed the palette, we knew we didn’t want a brownish wardrobe. It is mostly a black-and-white theme for the hotel team but for the customers it was a great chance to play with color.”
He also used vintage materials he’d collected, saying: “My focus was to [strive for] maximum authenticity and to give a second-hand look, even with the new pieces we made.”
Have you seen Albert Nobbs?