For Glenn Close, Norma Desmond Was Just Too Good to Turn Down

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

It is the eve of Glenn Close's debut as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard"--and the actress is not ready for her close-up.

For a recent dressing-room interview at Century City's Shubert Theatre, Close showed up makeup-less, her cheeks a fresh-scrubbed shade of carnation pink, garbed in a long, unadorned tunic of basic black. The only touch of Desmond here is a startling set of blood-red nails.

But when a photographer appears on the scene, she flies to her dressing table. Despite her own simple style and the fact that she is at the peak of her career, Close is still an actress --just like Desmond, the desperately aging silent-film star created by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's 1950 film.

Though Close, 46, has often taken roles that indicate a healthy disrespect for vanity or eternal youth (note her 1982 feature film debut in "The World According to Garp," in which she portrayed Garp's very-middle-aged mother when she was only 35, or her Emmy-winning performance as TV's "Sarah, Plain and Tall"), there's just something about a camera.

"I don't have a stitch of makeup on. There's plain, and then there's plain ," Close says, hurriedly dusting on blush and a touch of mascara. She insists on being photographed on her "good side" and is fearful of long shadows that lights and mirrors might cast on her face. "No face is the same on both sides," she says.

Close, however, is fully prepared to lay herself bare before the footlights in Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical "Sunset Boulevard," based on Billy Wilder's 1950 movie. The show opens Thursday. Close is singing onstage for the first time since her Tony-nominated appearance on Broadway in 1980 in the musical "Barnum."

"Opening night for me is just something to get through, because I know we are not where we are going to be," she says quietly, trying to protect her voice for the event. She is already feeling the strain from endless rehearsals, residual soot and dry air from the Los Angeles fires and an annoying virus. "It's so technical, singing. . . . Opera stars get a reputation for being so temperamental, but they only do two shows a week, and we do eight ," she says.

"And I have a 5 1/2-year-old little girl, and you can't put her to bed for six months except on your one night off," Close adds. "It's tough."

And so is being in Los Angeles. Close, who is living on the Westside during the show's run, has enrolled daughter Annie in kindergarten here but claims to be "too much of a Yankee" to settle in L.A. for long.

"Since we've been here, there have been fires, terrible fires," she says. "It's frightening for us. . . . And now there's mud, and earthquakes--it's just unsettling to me, coming from New York. Ash was falling on the whole Westside.

"It's an atmosphere that takes some getting used to--all the gates, all these big gates. It's almost like a Third World country sometimes, these big, huge fancy gates with broken glass on top to keep all the undesirables out. There is something slightly unsettling about that."

When it is suggested that "Sunset Boulevard" could last as long as Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" at the Music Center's Ahmanson Theater--four years and three months--she groaned: "No--never!"

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While Los Angeles may not be the ideal setting for Close and daughter, however, Close calls the place perfect for an opening of "Sunset Boulevard."

"It's the heart of Norma Desmond country," she says.

Desmond slowly loses her youth, her beauty and her mind behind the protective doors of a decaying Hollywood mansion. Though Close calls Desmond a tragic heroine of epic proportions, she also hopes that playing Desmond will not irrevocably bond her to Desmond's weird and often unattractive persona.

"Norma Desmond, as a character, I think is one of the most magnificent characters to be created for a woman," Close says. "She's that size; she's that big . I really thought it was a chance of a lifetime."

In the film, the fictional Desmond is supposed to be about 50, a wilted rose who lost her bloom with the advent of talking pictures. But in her mind, Desmond remains a star--waiting for the fateful call from Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Pictures that will revive her career. It's the kind of unflattering, age-specific role that Desmond herself would never have taken--not even if it were offered to her by DeMille himself.

Although Close says she plays her Norma Desmond as somewhat older than 50, she acknowledges being acutely aware that it would take only four more candles to make her own birthday cake suitable for Desmond's party. While 50 is somewhat less lethal for a major female star today than in Wilder's 1940s Hollywood, Close muses: "I think (Hollywood) is a rather ruthless world. People are--expendable, is that the right word?

"I keep saying to Alan that this will really catapult his career in Hollywood, and it will end mine," Close says, laughing, referring to Alan Campbell, who co-stars as Joe Gillis, the young screenwriter Desmond ensnares in a destructive May-December romance. "But I feel that this role will be so much of a challenge (that) hopefully it will work out OK.

"But it does cross my mind," she adds thoughtfully. "I would like, when I go out in public when I'm here, to look as beautiful as possible, to remind people that I am not an old woman. But then again, it's fun to try to lose yourself in a totally different persona.

"My main preparation was to look at silent movies, because she was a great silent-movie star . . . I think the cliche is that everything was overdone, but I found, watching the silent Swanson pictures, and the Garbo silent pictures, that they would stand up today as great performances. She (Desmond) thinks of herself at the height of her beauty, so however she looks now has become an eccentricity; it's no longer real. And so it looks very strange to other people. She is also mentally fragile; she is a very fragile being."

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Close says she was led to the role through her connection with Christopher Hampton, who with Don Black wrote the book and lyrics for "Sunset Boulevard." Close starred in the 1988 film "Dangerous Liaisons," which Hampton wrote, based on his 1985 play "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

Close adds that singing, not aging, has been her biggest challenge: "I did a lot of singing to prepare for a movie called 'Meeting Venus' (a 1992 film that starred Close as a Swedish diva), and even though that was Kiri Te Kanawa's voice on the screen, I was actually singing the arias to make it seem more real."

But she acknowledges that returning to the stage musical is a little scarier. "That's why I wanted to do it," she says, laughing. " Scare yourself."

Rumor has it that Close is also scaring Patti LuPone, 46, who is playing the Desmond role in the current London production of the show, which opened in July to decidely mixed reviews. LuPone is scheduled to take the role to Broadway next year. Some of those reviews--particularly one scathing notice from New York Times theater critic Frank Rich--led to a flurry of rumors that Close, not LuPone, would take the role to Broadway.

Another rumor contends that LuPone, stung by Rich's evaluation of her performance (he calls her "miscast and unmoving"), had demanded to be bought out of her contract to the tune of as much as $4 million. The truth in this may be questionable since Rich will not review the Broadway production, as he is stepping down as the Times' theater critic at the end of this year. Representatives of Close and Lloyd Webber hotly deny all speculation.

"There is no debate," said a spokesman for Lloyd Webber and his company, the Really Useful Group. "The decision was made, and contractually agreed to, that Patti LuPone will play the role on Broadway, and Glenn is contracted just for the Los Angeles show."

Said LuPone's spokeswoman: "I don't know where half of this (rumor) comes from; I think it's ridiculous--and on with the show! Patti has not asked for any money; she is assuming she is coming to Broadway. She adores Glenn Close and thinks she is going to be fabulous in L.A., but Patti's coming to New York."

When asked about the situation, Close said coolly that she has "no idea" about any such rumors and confirmed that her current contract calls for nine months in Los Angeles with a six-month out clause because "six months is a hell of a long time to do eight shows a week." And "realistically speaking, I can make three times the salary doing one movie that I can make in the show," she adds--declining to discuss dollar figures because she believes talk of money, even in Hollywood, is "rather gauche ."

Close called any supposed rivalry between herself and LuPone a creation of the media. She has not seen LuPone's performance: "I didn't think it was a good idea," she says.

"I think they (Webber's company) have on their hands two very different productions," she says. "I have never felt for a second that I was, I am not , stepping into Patti's performance. I have never been made to feel that." Close says that Lloyd Webber has not approached her about Broadway and that it is her understanding that LuPone will play the role in New York. "We'll take Paris and Milan," she jokes.

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Close appears much younger--and blonder--than the dark, eyebrow-intensive vamp portrayed by Swanson. LuPone, the same age as Close, was blasted in the Rich review as being too young and bouncy for the role. But Close is not using either the movie or the London production as role models.

"I'm not doing Gloria Swanson, I'm doing Norma Desmond," Close says firmly. "So my take on this is I'm not trying to mimic Gloria Swanson. That would be stupid."

And, she says, "There are wigs. And hats. And costumes. All during rehearsal, I knew no one would really see Norma until I got on the makeup, and the costumes. . . . I don't recognize myself from one ensemble to the next. It's great--people are just shocked when they see me, because I am not myself anymore."

Close's dressing room is filled with Desmond's gowns, dripping with gold embroidery or emblazoned with flashy leopard prints; an eerie line of bald, white-foam heads on a side table hold the jeweled and feathered turbans that will transform Close into Desmond in 12 costume changes--one of which must be accomplished in 22 seconds.

The rooms would be oddly appropriate for Desmond--decorated with graceful, flowery period furniture and artworks in ornate frames borrowed from the storage rooms of Paramount Studios. All it took was a phone call to Close's friend Sherry Lansing, chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount's Motion Picture Group.

Close is enjoying not only the tragedy but also the humor in Norma Desmond--whom many know best not from Gloria Swanson's serious portrayal but from Carol Burnett's hilarious one.

"She (Desmond) definitely has a sense of style," Close says. "And she's rich, Norma Desmond is rich ! She's got oil wells pumping in Bakersfield. I mean, she is truly wealthy." Close stretches out contentedly on one of her dressing room's suitable-for-swooning sofas. "I never knew I was so rich until I saw my wardrobe."

Close is not sure if daughter Annie will see the show.

"I am going to try her out on some dress rehearsals," she says. "Not too long ago (1992) I did 'Death and the Maiden,' which was a very, very disturbing and in many ways violent play in New York, and she didn't know what was real and what wasn't real. If she would come to the theater and hear the play over the intercom, she would get very upset, because she would think we were really screaming.

"I just did a movie this summer with Michael Keaton, and we have this big fight--he gives me a bloody nose--and I kept saying: 'See, Annie, it's fun! It's pretend.' She really got into that."

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Despite the high theatrics of Desmond's existence, Close sees a parallel with ordinary folk, both in Hollywood and elsewhere.

"It is watching and saying, on some occasions, 'That could be me,' " she says. "Joe Gillis, for example, is a good guy from Ohio, but he's gotten cynical--it's just one little compromise after another, and it's hard to see at what point he could have stopped it. I think a lot of people can relate to that--little compromises have become huge compromises."

Close even sees a little of herself in Norma Desmond.

"I think the way they talk about her when she was young--that she had a sense of wonder, and the dream," she says. "I think anybody who goes into the acting profession has that. A sense of wonder, a sense of excitement. I think I share that with her."*

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