In her third act, one of history’s greatest actresses is gaining a sense of peace and family in Bozeman.
STORY BY TODD WILKINSON
PHOTOS BY SEONAID B. CAMPBELL
In a part of town she fondly references as “Bozeman’s funky North Side,” Glenn Close, wearing faded blue jeans and a flannel shirt, answers the door knock. But Sir Pippin of Beanfield, her spirited, barking Havanese nicknamed Pips, beats her to the porch. A full year before the COVID pandemic arrived, Close left her longtime base of New York, settling in a quiet Bozeman neighborhood of modest homes that, from the outside, are inconspicuous and lack pretention.
These days, the same can be said of Close herself. One of the first things you need to know straight away—and it’s something the movie star herself doesn’t mind making clear—is this: Close didn’t come to southwest Montana to inhabit a castle-sized trophy home, perched behind the wall of a chichi gated subdivision and manned by uniformed security guards to insulate her from being a member of the local community. In her case, being modest has done nothing to diminish her standing in the world.
Only weeks after our get-together, Close appeared at the 2021 Academy Awards in Los Angeles where she was a nominee for Best Supporting Actress, earning praise for her gritty portrayal of surly blue-collar steel worker Mamaw in Hillbilly Elegy.
In all, Close has been nominated for eight Oscars and is counted among the greatest and most versatile American actresses ever. Yet following a four-decade odyssey in which she’s brought unforgettable characters to the big screen, major theater productions and television dramas, at 74 she’s now coveting a personal prize that eluded her: reconnection to family.
“I shot a film in Canada during the winter. It was fun and lovely but I was homesick, and I never used to get homesick,” says Close as we walk through her home, a mix of traditional moldings adorning its recent contemporary renovation. She’s discussing her sisters, Jessie who lives next door, and Tina, a painter who lives nearby. “Not only is Bozeman my home but I couldn’t wait to get back here. When I left to go to that job, Jessie and Tina were there to see me off at the airport. It was so great. I’ve come to realize how much I dread going away.”
Here in the Northern Rockies, in this unlikely stage for the third act of her life, Close is planting deep intergenerational roots closer to nature. Eschewing the notion that successful actors must necessarily be awaiting audition calls and perfect scripts in New York City or LA, she is feeling more energized than ever about the roles that keep coming her way. But most importantly, she’s savoring the bonds of siblinghood, being an attentive aunt, and embracing the role of grandmother after her daughter Annie and husband Marc Albu welcomed their first child.
So, what are we to make of this lesser-known, more anonymous Glenn Close, the self-described “homebody” who calls reading books one of her greatest pleasures? Citizen Close who, when she’s not blending into the scenery, joins volunteers in encouraging people to vote and, as a low-key activist, pens op-eds in the local newspaper and holds protest signs so the hospital will take mental-health issues more seriously. Or this side: the quiet wanderer with a lifelong passion for rockhounding and who surrounds herself with billion-year- old geological touchstones that remind her of favored earthly places, including those of her distant New England childhood.
Could this introverted Close really be the same person, the actress who morphed into jarring Alex Forrest, the abused jilted lover in Fatal Attraction? The devilishly scheming Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, or the vengeful 18th-century French noblewoman Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons? The laconic gender-bending Albert Nobbs? The formidable power attorney Patty Hewes in Damages (that she called “the role of her life”)? Captain Monica Rawling, head- packing cop in The Shield? Gertrude, mother of Hamlet, and the ultimate American tragic figure, Norma Desmond, used-up starlet, whom she’s played twice to critical acclaim in renditions of Sunset Boulevard?
Close is deriving as much delight soaking in the star-filled skies over the Bridgers as basking in limelight. Recently, Close the committed conservationist lent her voice to an animated film about gray wolves and she’s narrated a number of wildlife documentaries for entities like the National Geographic Society. “Glenn is smart, informed and committed,” says Mike Phillips, leader of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, former federal wolf biologist who helped restore the canids to Yellowstone National Park, and who served in both the Montana House and Senate. “Above all else she knows that we’ll get but one chance to set things right with the natural world. Until we do, too many people and other living things will suffer, needlessly. And that’s unacceptable to her.”
Still, Close says she’s mindful about how she engages. “The thing I’m always sensitive to is the ‘celebrity quotient’ because it can be not a positive thing if you are trying to influence people and get them to pay attention,” Close says. “I hate the word celebrity to begin with. People have so many misconceived ideas, especially as it applies to me. I don’t want to be a hindrance. I don’t want people getting involved in a cause because the person promoting it is perceived to be famous. I ask myself this question: ‘Am I going to be an asset at this meeting or is somebody going to be intimidated?’ I don’t want my presence to get in the way.”
Having nothing more to prove in her career, Close arrived in Bozeman in late 2019 realizing she had a second chance to remedy a regret: how the whirlwind of professional opportunity had cost her time with two sisters and a brother, all creative individuals who bonded as youngsters in the Connecticut countryside, temporarily in idyllic animation before their enigmatic, Liberal, affluent parents, black sheeps of old Blue Blood families, defied their pedigree and made the clan a nomadic one.
Among the stops was spending time with a religious-like cult, Moral Re-Armament, first in the Congo where her Harvard-educated dad was a doctor, and later in Switzerland where Close attended a private school, and after that a boarding school stateside. Fate pulled the Close siblings in different directions and their parents ended up in Big Piney, Wyoming, within sight of the Wind River mountains where her dad was a self-described “country doctor.”
Close considers herself a “late bloomer,” at least with regard to making movies. But her college drama instructor at William and Mary knew she had what it takes to be a multidimensional thespian. Long before her film debut in 1982’s The World According to Garp, and following it up with Oscar-nominated performances in The Big Chill (featuring a brilliant ensemble cast) and The Natural with costar Robert Redford, she spent her post-college 20s on Broadway, receiving a Tony Award in 1980 that’s been followed up with Emmys and Golden Globes.
Newcomers to Bozeman may not realize that for a stretch of years Close and sister Jessie co-owned the popular Leaf and Bean coffee shop and the adjacent, equally revered Poor Richard’s magazine and tobacconist store. Jessie minded the businesses while writing books and poetry on the side. Out of sight, she also was struggling with what became formally diagnosed as bipolar disorder and began taking medication to help address the chemical imbalance. Her journey, which included a couple of psychotic episodes, has led her to become a national advocate for mental health, joined by Glenn. Not long ago, Jessie coauthored a memoir, Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness, that is an unflinching personal account of dealing with mental health challenges known to millions yet still treated with stigma.
“Jessie is my personal hero and I’ve always thought of her as the most creative of all of us,” Glenn says.
Again, Close acknowledges that she’s often reticent to use her high profile to bolster causes because fame does not translate into credibility. “Lending my name is not a natural instinct for me,” she says. “And with something like the cause of bringing dignity to those who struggle with mental health issues, it’s not like you can start and then decide I just don’t want to do this anymore. For an introvert like me, it was a conscious decision and one where there was no alternative because it involves my family.”
“In the childhood of my imagination, it is always summer.”
Inspired by her sister’s courage, Glenn has lent her support, appearing at book events and rallies with her side by side, calling upon politicians and the medical community to give mental health issues the resources and dignity they deserve.
Their co-initiative, Bring Change to Mind, which she and Jessie created, is intended to bring discussions about mental health out of the dark ages and end the shame that society has imposed on its many sufferers. In Bozeman, the Closes and friends have made it clear that better mental health care needs to be a priority. And they are not going away.
Close lives just a stone’s throw away from Jessie and on most mornings they’ll share a cup of tea and discuss the coming events in their days. While this writer was there, Jessie graciously gave a sneak preview of a body of photographs she’s been amassing for decades, showing different parts of the Gallatin Valley in differing seasons and at times of day, and how it is changing amid huge population growth. Their sister Tina, a talented nature artist formerly of the Jackson Hole town of Wilson, is noted for her botanical illustrations and multimedia depictions of wildlife. Meanwhile, brother Sandy has a fascinating mind and can make all kinds of stuff by hand. “He literally invents parts in order to fix machines and save his clients thousands of dollars in repairs,” Glenn says. “He’s kind of a genius.”
One of the things Close likes about Bozeman is that most people are more obsessed about being outdoors than fawning over so-called celebrities. Still, rumors fly about famous people living in their midst.
When I ask Close if reports of her dressing up on occasion and going around town taking on the persona of different characters holds veracity, she laughs in amusement. “It’s not true. I don’t make a habit of it,” she says. “The only time I’ve done it was to post a comment on my Instagram account to voting day but not in character as a different person.”
“I’m learning to spend time creatively. I’d much rather read a book than go to a cocktail party. The pandemic, for me, was no hardship to be at home and I kept thinking how lucky I was to have moved here. It’s been a sanctuary.”
Close takes notice of things in nature; the imprint of sensual awareness and of elemental forces that took place early in her life. The filmmaker Michael Apted, creator of the famous British documentary series Up that chronicled the evolution of children as they grow up from 7 years old, said give him the child at 7 and he’ll show you the essence of the grown-up being.
“Seven was a crucial year for me,” Close says, noting that when she and her siblings were young they ran rampant over the Connecticut countryside.
“We grew up with a great reverence for nature. We were so close to it being little wild kids. My mom was a great lover of being outdoors, probably because she suffered from bad hearing at an early age, and it got to the point where she could no longer hear the birds sing. Still, she sought it out. When we were in Big Piney, she had a teepee and she would go out there to make contact. You come to appreciate the minutiae, the tiny things that are so fascinating. It’s imprinted on each of us, very much.”
With that, we stand in front of an intricate painting of lichen on a glacial erratic done by her sister, Tina, who has work in the collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
About her own relationship with the West, Close says, “I don’t know if I’ve past lives but as a woman who grew up in the countryside of New England where you don’t have a big sky at all, I have always been attracted to open space and enjoyed it much when our parents lived in Wyoming near the Winds,” she says. “Big Piney, which from an airplane looks like a wasteland to some, was to me one of the most beautiful places. Those high desert rock formations and the way the light falls.”
Looking back, having become infected with what her friend, the eminent ecologist E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” or love of the natural world, Close can see a link to her acting. “In Connecticut, we were always using our imaginations to pretend, and I just never stopped doing that. In the childhood of my imagination, it is always summer.”
The motion picture historian and conversationalist James Lipton described Close as having genius in being able to get at the essence of her characters. I asked her how that intuitive talent translates into real life? “It drives my daughter crazy. I am very much a new soul, and she is an old soul.”
“What does that mean?” I ask. “I go around thinking I’m unfinished,” she says, a look of earnest contemplation on her face, and evincing a vigor not often associated with a mid-septuagenarian. “I’m very unfinished and that’s why I get such satisfaction creating characters. I’ve always said I feel like a waving grass on a shifting bar of sand. It makes me kind of a clean slate in a way.”
Being an introvert means that she likely spends more time in her head than most people, she says, mentioning Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “That book really helped me because … if anybody asked me to do something, I forced myself to do things that I really didn’t enjoy. Now I feel OK with saying no because, first, I have less time in front of me than I have behind me, and time is even more valuable. I’m learning to spend time creatively. I’d much rather read a book than go to a cocktail party. The pandemic, for me, was no hardship to be at home and I kept thinking how lucky I was to have moved here. It’s been a sanctuary. For everybody, the stories of how we coped and came out of it will last for a long time. We are basically traumatized as a country.”
In Hillbilly Elegy, the film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s acclaimed memoir about the economic disintegration of steel towns in the Rust Belt and social problems that ensued, Close played, with startling impact and make-up transformation, the crusty family matriarch, Mamaw.
“Did Mamaw possess hope?” I ask. “That’s a good question,” Close answers. “I don’t think she was a very contemplative woman but what she did for her grandson certainly gave him hope. I don’t think she would say life is hopeless. She’s said it’s up to you; you need to take your chances and be realistic about where you’re coming from and what you need in order to realize change.”
“One of the things we need to do more of in this country is put ourselves in other people’s shoes. And understand that everyone has a story.”
Close believes the challenges hold parallels for many people in the rural West, where the best days in some small ranching, farming and resource-extraction towns have come and gone. Winnowing prospects of achieving the “American Dream” have brought disillusionment, depression, despair.
“I didn’t need that role to find empathy and compassion,” Close says. “One of the things we need to do more of in this country is put ourselves in other people’s shoes. And understand that everyone has a story. Whether it’s anger or disappointment, it makes people susceptible to those who claim to hold the answer. It’s human nature. I’m not judging them. But I do want to know their stories, what brought them there. I want to understand the source of their struggles. I have great respect for women of the rural West—full of tough women. Family is everything.”
In her new film, Four Good Days, Close plays the mother of a daughter, played by Mila Kunis, who is fighting for her life against addiction. Close sees its exploration of drug abuse, in some ways, as an extension of despair, one that also gripped protagonists in Hillbilly Elegy. “Millions of American families are dealing with addiction and their stories don’t often have happy endings,” she says. “They’re traumatic and heartbreaking and no matter how much you love someone you can’t save them. They have to want to save themselves.”Close recites what her mother told her, that “most Americans are really good people just trying to get by. And I think we’re no different from anyone else. Saying that, I personally don’t think the human species is great in a crowd.”
Listening to people who feel shut out, left out or abandoned is incredibly important. “But we’re in the age of Tweets. Tweets are not eloquent, unless they’re expressed as haiku or something,” she says laughing. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people could only Tweet if it were done in haiku?”
At this point, Close reflects more deeply. “I love history and have always felt that, without exception, the people that emerged as leaders—inspirational leaders—have eloquence. To me, eloquence is as important as anything else,” she says. “Look at a great classical piece of music. The genius is how the composer has put one note after another and invariably it creates an emotional response. It’s the same thing with words. They have that power. If you know how to put them in that order they can go straight to the human heart.”
Every character she has played, including Cruella de Vil, is a woman who at some level was struggling to find a center of gravity while dealing with adversity. None is perhaps more poignant than Desmond, the aging tragic protagonist in Sunset Boulevard about an aging actress who once was a queen in Hollywood but whose days in the limelight have passed. “It’s an incredible blessing to do what I do because it’s really about exploring how people are—what the human condition is.”
Desmond as an American character ranks as one of the best drawn ever for a woman and whose complexity could be considered Shakespearean. Namely, the movie deals with a country and film industry that is notoriously obsessed with eternal youth. Where Desmond is the paragon of a starlet once catapulted to fame by the Hollywood Dream Machine only to be discarded when her youth fades, Close is among a diverse coterie of contemporary women defying ageism and writing new rules of engagement.
As intense or even as mild-mannered as Close can be, she has a wicked sense of humor, demonstrating it both in her private life and the roles she’s taken on for fun. In Mars Attacks!, she played a First Lady to Jack Nicholson’s President and was taken out by a falling chandelier installed by Nancy Reagan. In Guardians of the Galaxy, she was Nova Prime Commander Irani Rael who enlisted a ragged band of superheroes to save her home planet. In real life, she’s concerned, too.
“Glenn is awesome. Her thinking is expansive,” says Thomas Kaplan, an investor and commodities guru who has dedicated earnings to creating Panthera, the nonprofit devoted to protecting 40 different species of wild cats ranging from cougars to African lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and others around the world. “I’m impressed by her not because she’s a damned fine actress, but she’s informed, and she cares, and she’s willing to lend her cachet to giving voice to creatures whose stories need to be heard.”
Close has served as chair of Panthera’s Conservation Council. She remembers her grandparents lighting her empathy for cats by taking her to the Bronx Zoo as a young girl.
“Big cats interest me in that they’re the top of the heap wherever they are and for them to survive means that everything below them can survive,” Close explains. “Somehow, humans think that we can do it alone, that we’re smart enough to create some kind of world that doesn’t need the profound connection that has led us to be where we are today.”
Close has a sophisticated understanding of ecosystems at the landscape level. She can eloquently discuss her friend, Dr. E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth initiative to protect the planet’s biodiversity from disaster.
And she’s well versed about her home bioregion, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the fact that it is the only one left in the Lower 48 with all its original large mammals that were on the landscape before Europeans arrived on the continent. She mentions rapid growth occurring in the Gallatin Valley and noted not only the loss of wildlife corridors but also prime farm ground and prized open space and unblighted views treasured by all.
To invoke an analogy for demonstrating why it’s vital to maintain all the parts of wild ecosystems, Close references the game Jenga where wooden pieces are built into a tower and every player is required to remove one until, eventually, the structure collapses. “We are both removing the pieces and we are one of them ourselves,” Close says. “How dare we think that we are the most important and that we don’t need everything else, organisms that have taken ages to develop. It’s the height of arrogance and stupidity that we think we can survive without the incredible network in nature.”
Another thing she’s well versed in is family. “All of us congregating here stems from the fact that we lost each other for most of our adult life. We were scattered and before the arrival of iPhones and texting, we didn’t have a culture in our family of calling each other on a regular basis or even writing letters,” Close says. “My sisters and their families have gone through things and we’ve had a lot of catching up to do. There’s a mutual feeling, I think, that we’re making up for lost time and kind of deriving joy out of the mundane. I had never seen much of the mundane side of life.”
A while back, Close purchased some property north of Bozeman between the Bridgers and the snaking course of the East Gallatin River. She has trees on the place and a creek flowing through it, and wildlife tracks and rocks—lots of beautiful rocks deposited over time. Plans are in place to build an abode there but not one that will lord over the terrain, displace critters and make a statement. It’s about something else.
“When I was little, I got solace in nature and that has never changed,” Close says. “I always tried to create that same potential for my family, especially now to come back here and be with my siblings and have a piece of land outside of town that will always be here for my daughter and her children.”
With no dramatic flourish in sight, the actress adds, “That’s my legacy.”
Gone for her in Bozeman are days when she might have second guessed choices she made.“You can wake up at four in the morning and think you’ve made every wrong decision in your life, and then you stay awake until dawn which is an incredibly deadly place to be,” she says. “I just feel incredibly lucky. I do think these will be the best years of my life.”
Todd Wilkinson, a regular contributor to Mountain Outlaw, is a Bozeman-based correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian. He is the author of critically acclaimed books on Ted Turner, famous Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, and scientific whistleblowers. He is also founder of Mountain Journal, a nationally recognized nonprofit online magazine devoted to exploring the intersection between people and nature in Greater Yellowstone.
Seoniad “Sho” B. Campbell is a writer, documentary filmmaker and photographer who moonlights as a climate change consultant at her company, Studio Lynx. A woman of the Rocky Mountain West and Scottish Highlands, Campbell has an abiding reverence for nature and thus a personal mission to protect Earth’s remaining wild species and ecosystems. Glenn Close is her aunt.