CLOSE & PATINKIN

She's Glenn and he's Mandy. She's blond, and from one of those Connecticut Yankee families that once talked only to God. He's Polish-Russian, and anything but blond. He talks with such intensity that Sidney Lumet calls him "the lightning bolt." She, on the other hand, appears almost ethereal--but isn't. What she doesn't say communicates more than what she does say.

Though he's played ethnic radicals and she's played WASP mothers, they've yet to become typed. Both share powerhouse Manhattan representation and reputations, which means they're on the brink of something--possibly stardom (if not the clout to carry movies on their own shoulders). At the moment, the career questions swirling around them are unanswerable. But just now, all bets are on.

She got her first Oscar nomination for her first movie ("The World According to Garp"), and he got a Tony for his first Broadway musical ("Evita"). Last year, he narrowly lost a second Tony for his role in the musical "Sunday in the Park With George," while she took her first Tony, for Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." They're ranking members in the most exclusive acting club around--that group of stage-trained players in their 30s that includes William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep and John Lithgow.

But right now, a very particular burden is on Close and Patinkin. The question is, can Yuppies be sexy on screen? The list of Yuppie movies is so short ("The Big Chill," "Irreconcilable Differences," "Manhattan," "Kramer vs. Kramer")--and the dearth of Yuppie romance so real--that the question is a major one. Do Close and Patinkin, now acting together in a throwback romantic comedy called "Maxie," have He-She Chemistry?

Do they have what ?

He-She Chemistry. It's almost as critical to movie stardom as cheekbones. It's that indefinable thing shared by only the luckiest of movie couples. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr had it. Mia Farrow and Dustin Hoffman didn't. John Wayne had it with Maureen O'Hara, but with almost nobody else. The same is true of Glenn Ford with Rita Hayworth. Jennifer Jones had it with almost every leading man, while Joan Crawford almost never had it. Timothy Hutton has it with Elizabeth McGovern. Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep have it on occasion. The thing is, you know it when you see it.

It's anybody's guess whether Glenn Close and Mandy Patinkin will have it on screen. (The answer will come next summer when Orion Pictures releases "Maxie," a sort of Yuppie-ized "Blithe Spirit.") But in a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills late one recent night, the actors showed it in spades.

"Ten years ago--do you remember?" Patinkin, the formerly bearded co-star of "Yentl," asked Close, the formerly red-haired co-star of "The Natural." Patinkin persisted: "Ten years ago, we had this thing for each other."

"Shhh," whispered Close, blushing just enough to indicate she wanted the subject changed.

"Now, come on and admit it!" insisted Patinkin. "It was 1974 and. . . ."

"It was 1975, and I remember coming to your apartment and heading right for the rocking chair. You had this wonderful red rocking chair, and I sat right down."

"I remember the chair. I don't remember you sitting in it. I remember being terrified of courting you--but wanting to. Very badly."

Glenn Close didn't do anything as obvious as take her co-star's hand. She simply gave him a look that was like a letter from a lawyer. It said everything and nothing all at once.

"Oh well," sighed Patinkin, "life is a matter of lucky hard choices. Or unlucky ones."

"I'm not much of a believer in luck," said Close, firmly. "I've had to work too hard. Of course I always sensed with the work there would be a progression."

There is. Ten years ago, almost to the week, Glenn Close in one day joined Actors Equity and New York's now-defunct Phoenix Repertory Company. Six weeks later, after a disastrous Saturday matinee of "Love for Love," director Harold Prince fired his star (the late Mary Ure). That night, an understudy named Glenn Close made her New York debut as a leading lady. She hasn't stopped working since. Even in show business, that last vestige of Cinderella stories, Glenn Close is right now unquestionably the belle of the ball.

Earlier this month, she received her third consecutive Academy Award nomination (for "The Natural")--and she's only made four films. Last spring she won the Tony, and last fall she was up for an Emmy for "Something About Amelia," the class act of 1984 TV movies. For "The Natural," cinematographer Caleb Deschanel invented a lens (a la the "Obie" lens invented in the '30s for Merle Oberon) to better capture Close's character, a Midwesterner Close describes as "the 1950s idea of a good woman, the woman in light."

Not to gild the lily, but just to complete the picture, last September Close went to Nantucket, where she spent her honeymoon with venture capitalist James Marlas. "My husband," she said, devouring a bowl of won-ton soup, "had never heard of me when we met. And we only met last January. He'd never seen my work. Yet he still manages to remind me that I am not Katharine Hepburn."

Not yet. At 36 ("But I am going to stay 35 for the rest of my life!"), Close seems very much her image. Cool, but not without conflict, while Patinkin (who's five years younger) is almost overheated. In perfect (and unconscious) contrast were their outfits, his a baseball jacket and jeans, and hers a white linen shirt and jeans. Serene even after a 12-hour shooting day, Close went unrecognized in the restaurant and on the street, and so did her co-star. Patinkin is attention-getting, though, and when he sits at a table, he dominates it. He takes some getting used to. He can down any number of Chinese dishes while simultaneously explaining why and how Mike Nichols and Milos Forman give actors confidence. If Patinkin is all over the place, Close plays it closer to the bone.

"Glenn seems to have a secret and she slowly lets it out," explained playwright Wendy Wasserstein ("Isn't It Romantic"). "It's as though Glenn knows something you don't." Actors very often are described in such ways, ways even they don't understand. But Close is very self-aware. Psychoanalysis helped: "I began going in the '70s because I couldn't cope by myself anymore, and I wanted to get to the bottom of patterns I didn't like and wanted to know more about." The work helped, too. Without becoming a Wunderkind (a la Meryl Streep), Close got the chance to develop quietly, both Off Broadway and on.

"I needed to show what I had," admitted Close, who if pressed will say she'd like as a performer "to be somebody people trust." To get to that point, actors must make crucial, and sometimes completely surprising, career choices. Example: Very near to filming "The Bostonians," Close backed out due to the seductive pressure of Robert Redford, who wanted her for a smaller role in "The Natural." (The "Bostonians" role eventually went to Vanessa Redgrave--and won her an Oscar nomination.) The size of the parts weren't comparable, and neither was screen time. But screen time doesn't always count; Jane Alexander once confessed she took the near-cameo role of the bookkeeper in "All the President's Men" only because her few moments on screen could not be cut.

Close understood this logic. "My reaction to something can come without reading a script. It can be visceral." It isn't flawless, however. She auditioned for, and badly wanted, the role of Nora in the doomed Broadway musical "A Doll's Life." Another "miss" was the film of "The Little Drummer Girl," and it was a turning point. "I knocked their socks off in readings, but I wasn't enough of a star name." Even though George Roy Hill, her "Garp" director, helmed "Drummer Girl," Close could only come close. The moment had come to stop playing mothers (read: supporting roles). "Sure, I want my 'Sophie's Choice,' " confided Close. "And I feel I could have been doing leads 10 years ago. But there are only so many roles. I don't think very many people have the luxury of being picky."

Patinkin is itchy rather than picky. Once you've played a Puerto Rican cabbie ("Night of the Juggler"), a pool maintenance man ("The Big Fix") and a Wall Street Journal reporter ("Last Embrace"), you get eager for more exposure. "Omigod, with 'Ragtime' it was unbelievable the way I hounded (director) Milos Forman! It went on for six months. Then, the day before my wedding (to actress Kathryn Grody), I screen-tested. When Milos called, he said, 'I'm sorry if I ruined your honeymoon, but it was worth it. You got the part.' "

Not worth it, even at the loss of a potential $500,000 salary, was the abortive TV miniseries "Marco Polo." Again, a career move can look smart in retrospect--if not at the moment. Set to play Polo (with Anne Bancroft as Mother Polo), Patinkin left the European location just weeks before shooting started. He'd only stepped in when Michael Ontkean had earlier walked off. (The eventual Polo was Ken Marshall.) Nobody would blame Patinkin for the split; the project turned out abominably. "If an actor doesn't make choices he can live with, he's really got nothing to fall back on," he said gravely. Listening to Patinkin is like listening to a novelist. He talks with the obsessive tone of one who has everything at stake every minute. And his risk-taking has a history.

At Juilliard in the '70s, in John Houseman's famed Acting Company, Patinkin took enough chances (and went enough against the grain) that he wound up leaving prematurely, as did his classmate William Hurt. "There was a feeling of young performers unzipping their guts, asking teachers to make them into great actors. I felt there were too many games played and too many people put under too much pressure from mentors."

Another kind of pressure is peer pressure. Glenn Close's jaw no longer tightens when the name Meryl Streep is mentioned. But there was a time, not very long ago, when Close would insist, a little too firmly, that people should stop these comparisons. "It's a bit silly, really. We're both blonds, we both play strong women, we both have long noses. Otherwise, what?"

Otherwise not very much, actually. Meryl Streep segued (some say leaped) from Yale Drama School to Off Broadway with hardly a summer off. And when Glenn Close talks about regrets, she only talks about one: "The years wasted." After boarding schools in Switzerland and Connecticut, Close found herself dropping out in true Yuppie (then hippie) fashion. Her very early 20s were spent singing and touring with folk groups (Up With People) and rock groups, and in a short-lived marriage to rock guitarist Cabot Wade.

But the lost time was made up for, fast. At 22, Close entered William & Mary, found a mentor in drama professor Howard Scammon and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Soon she was playing in repertory around the country, everywhere from Princeton to Milwaukee to New Haven, in everything from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams.

Milwaukee is not New York, but cream rises. When Close did "Crucifer of Blood" on Broadway, she one day spotted Prof. Scammon standing across the street from the Helen Hayes Theater. Said the professor to the former pupil: "I just wanted to watch you go to work." The actress was on her way. Yet unlike Streep, Close wasn't immediately singled out .

"Meryl truly has had a blessed career," Close said, not in envy but in some awe. "But I'm different. I always knew it was going to be me with each job, just showing the stuff. I'm sure in some way my career was influenced by Meryl's. But if you start making comparisons, you start jumping out windows."

A similar fate can occur if an actor starts obsessing about age. Mused Patinkin: "Of course, we're living in a kind of ageless time. For actors, I mean. On 'Ragtime,' I was up against actors in their 40s and 50s, and I was 28. I guess then I stopped worrying about age."

"Maybe you can do that. But an actress is forced to think about age." Having begun her film career as a 43-year-old mother ("Garp"), Close now seems to be reversing things. Her blond-blond hair for "Maxie" gives her a glow, or youth, not before seen. (The movie is about a modern married couple who move into a house inhabited by the ghost of a '30s movie star; Close, in dual roles, plays both wife and star.) The effect of the blonding is a kind of burgeoning . . . well, sexuality is the only word. And yet a year ago, at the Academy Awards, Close's close-cropped auburn Italian cut and rather Victorian gown gave a very different impression. She appeared dignified, and the opposite of silly or sexy. Can a star be inconsistent?

"An actress can," Close stressed. "That look last year was at the time of 'The Real Thing.' " Another leap, another role "announced" to star Meryl Streep--and a real departure. It was the end of her Mother of Garp cycle, playing centered, nurturing women. This time, Close played not only British, but also contemporary, and just slightly amoral. As the unfaithful, unforgettable Annie, Close dazzled Broadway. "I always wanted to play a part where I could light a cigarette wearing a trench coat, with the collar up . . . but in fact I sweated bullets to get Annie right."

Close means she learned, for the first time, to trust herself. Director Mike Nichols, who brought "Real Thing" to Broadway, has a theory that Close likes a lot. "Mike says each of us is either a gardener or a flower. We either do the tending or we want to be tended. Annie goes from being a flower to being a gardener to being a woman. One night, after a preview, Mike startled me. He said, 'There's something simple and real about you, and you're going away from it. You need to bring your whole day with you to the theater.' He told me I was the real thing, and that was where my strength came from. I cried right then, because I never believed what I did was special enough. From that night on, I began to fly."

Simultaneously, only blocks away, Patinkin was himself taking a leap. "Sunday in the Park With George" was more than Stephen Sondheim's renewal as a major force in American theater. Playing Georges Seurat was also Patinkin's "single most special experience in the theater." Again, the journey was complicated. From conception to workshop to Broadway meant a solid 18 months of nothing but "Sunday." But the musical was beyond special. It represented artists working at the top of their respective forms, dealing with the process of art, and stretching the limits of the Broadway musical.

"For 18 months, I turned everything else down, just to be available as 'Sunday' went from workshop to Broadway. The pitch of emotions from start to stop was higher than any I've ever known and the feelings were shared by Steve (Sondheim) and (director/librettist James) Lapine and myself. Yet I never felt trapped." Part of the reason was Patinkin's input in the creation of "Sunday."

"Truly, this was collaboration. People always say that, but this time it was true. Example: One night I talked on the phone to Steve for maybe three hours. The conversation was personal, revealing feelings even I didn't know were there. The next day Steve walked into rehearsal with a lyric that poeticized our conversation, and beautifully. At no time did I feel we were on the wrong track, or that I didn't know Georges Seurat. So many passions, so much conflict. . . ."

So much single-mindedness. One day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Patinkin found himself over-reacting to museumgoers who were critical of Seurat's work. "I felt I was his ghost, or I was him." The sensation was intensified by trips to Chicago, where he spent a total of seven hours simply looking at Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette," the Pointillist painting upon which the musical is based. "I needed to go, and go again, in order to see the actual colors he used. No reproduction would give me that. At one point I could feel myself tripping away." The preparation included no singing lessons. Patinkin has a working two-octave range, but can't read music, and doesn't feel the need to. As Sondheim put it during rehearsals: "Mandy's voice is brilliant and a gift from God. It shouldn't be tampered with."

Do either of the actors feel the need to tamper with images, or create them? If Close is now getting top billing (in both "Maxie" and Richard Marquand's now-shooting "Jagged Edge," opposite Jeff Bridges), she also knows that in the '80s the term leading lady is ambiguous at best. "I'm still very hungry for the best roles," she admitted, knowing also that expectations are dangerous.

"Look what happened with 'The Natural'! Finally I got to play opposite every woman's fantasy, Redford, and I never got to touch him! I said, 'Gimme a break!' " Close giggled at the incongruity. "What I learned from him had to do with close-ups. As the camera gets closer, he gets more interesting. In the work and in his life, there seems to be a balance. And yet he's kept his edge."

"Isn't that the goal?" asked Patinkin, excitedly. "What I realized again with 'Sunday' is that everyone is faced with this conflict between work and life. I still have neuroses, I still lose perspective, but I still expect balance. Georges Seurat died at 31, without balance in his life. I believe you can have both, you can do the work, and love someone, and be a parent. It isn't simple, of course, getting to simplicity."

"I'd like to have a body of work over a lifetime," Close announced, "but I'd also like to get more exercise, find time to answer letters, and walk into a health-food store without getting confused. Also, I'd like to come out of all this never having to audition for anything again."

"Remember today on the set?" reminded Patinkin, winding down. "Ruth Gordon, who's in the movie and just turned 88, turned to us and said--what was it, Glenn?"

"She said, very simply and without cynicism, 'Life's hard, isn't it?' And I thought, 'Yes, it is.' But I want to be around at 88 to tell somebody that."

"I want to tell it to my son right now," said Patinkin.

Five minutes later on an empty street in Beverly Hills, the hot young actors were in the midst of saying goodby for the day. "I'm freezing cold," said Close, bundling up. "But I get cold in New York in the middle of August."

Patinkin, clad only in his New York Yankees jacket, seemed to be her opposite, and anything but cold. He practically danced down Camden Drive, silently waving his goodby. It looked, at a distance, like a case of He-She Chemistry.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°