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Albert Nobbs: A Cross-Dressing Downton Abbey

Are you kidding, Glenn? This is your passion project? Really?

The film Albert Nobbs — a cross-dressing version of the Masterpiece success Downton Abbey — features Glenn Close dressed as a man the entire movie, often in a crazy looking bowler hat and tie. She plays the title character, a gay 19th century Irish woman who passes as a man so she can work as a waiter. I’ll bet confused waiters all over the world are racing off to check the movie listings even as we speak.

www.moviesmackdown.comClose’s look and performance are so bizarre that my daughter who attended the screening with me expressed her fear after the film that she’s going to have nightmares about the character’s unsettling trance-like stare. But the voting members of the film Academy gave Close an Oscar nomination.

I’m with my daughter. I just thought it was creepy and weird in the same way an evil clown is, and I didn’t think people would have believed this odd creation as a man for five minutes, let alone thirty years in turn-of-the-century Dublin. There’s a little kid in the film who sees Nobbs and is apparently the only person who realizes there is something strange and not-quite-right about him. Huh? Anybody not heavily sedated would see it, except in a movie that requires us to believe otherwise. No matter how many people wax poetic about Close’s performance, I’m just never going to get with that particular program.

But what do I know? My friend Josh, upon learning I’d seen Albert Nobbs, proclaimed his love of the film and looked at me like I was just plain silly for not understanding what a great job Close had done. He also raved about another female actor playing a man in a different film — Gwyneth Paltrow, who did the sex-swap in Shakespeare in Love. Yes, Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar for the role back in 1998, and no, I didn’t buy that one either. Take a look at that picture above. Seriously, who would believe that facial hair?

A year later, in 1999, the Academy did it again, giving the Oscar to Hilary Swank for her role in Boys Don’t Cry. Of all the women you see in our little montage, Swank’s was the only performance that was credible. I actually think the way she came across was sufficiently ambiguous to have worked. That is so difficult and so rare.

I never for one second bought Barbara Streisand in Yentl, nor Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria, nor Keira Knightly in Pirates of the Caribbean. Then there’s Angelina Jolie (picture, right middle) who managed in Salt to look neither like a man nor like herself.  (Then again, they were all equally credible or incredible, not to mention probably more appealing to either sex, than either Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.)

Besides, part of the fun of seeing great looking actresses on screen is, well, they’re great looking actresses. What’s the point of having them dress up as men? If you’re into that kind of thing there are plenty of places to go to see live performances, at least in Los Angeles. On the big screen, the effect is just wrong. This will probably elicit howls of outrage and comments of scorn for this post which, while humbling to a writer’s opinion, is also the gold standard of the Internet these days, so it’ll be a split decision here at The Smack.

To use some Nobbsian-era speak here, in for a penny, in for a pound, so here goes.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to cheer for Glenn Close to get an Oscar for this passion project of hers, especially in a year when everyone who’s not talking about Viola Davis’ standout performance in The Help is wondering how long Meryl Streep will have to wait for her next statuette. She’s been nominated a record seventeen times but has only won twice, the last time thirty years ago. You think you’ll ever see Meryl taping her boobs down to go pandering for Oscar votes? Uh-uh. Not gonna happen, because she knows that viewers not completely grounded and comfortable with their own sexuality might possibly pop a fuse and go haywire. A power such as Streep’s must be used only for good.

Luckily for us — I mean them, not us, why would I say us when I clearly mean them? — the Best Actress field is too packed this year for Close and her vacant-looking Nobbs to have a chance. If she does actually win, it would probably tell us more about the Academy members than they’re willing to divulge. We suspect that many of them are, in fact, emotionally twisted in ways that are probably best made the subject of another post at another time.

Let’s just put it this way. Here is your Moment of Zen, a picture of Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs kissing Mia Wasikowska as Helen. Look at Mia’s expression. Study it. This is how I feel about this performance and this entire movie.

About Bryce Zabel 196 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, creator of five produced primetime network TV series, and fast-food frycook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of "Movie Smackdown." While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. That, plus the fact that he has a new StudioCanal produced feature film, “The Last Battle,” shooting this summer in Europe about the end of World War II. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and a past enthusiast of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. His new what-if book series, “Breakpoint,” just won the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has so far tackled JFK not being assassinated and The Beatles staying together.
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6 Comments on Albert Nobbs: A Cross-Dressing Downton Abbey

  1. Just checked this movie in Portland.

    I think the whole idea was not so much that Nobbs was a woman playing a man but a person who was trapped by fear- of her sexuality, of her lack of education and choices. So s/he retreats into this very stiff, frozen caricature of a man as a way of making in the world and as a way to not deal with her emotions. Nobbs’ pathetic fear is shown to be tragic, which is the whole point of the film. I really think the whole question of constructing gender is ancillary, and not the center.

    Having said that, one of the best performances of a man play a woman was in Star Trek:TNG. In one the latter season’s episodes, Masks, Data (Brent Spiner) is inhabited by the souls/avatars of alien being recreating their world. Data gets to play a queen ( oh yes) and it is rather on pitch- the bearing and subtle body language is really well done.

    • Hey, Edie… That’s a really thoughtful comment that makes us think about this even more. We’d love to hear more from you here at the Smack. You may also want to join the discussion over at our Facebook page ( Thanks!

  2. Gotta say, I love a good gender bender and this little piece makes me really want to see this film just to see how convinced I could be or not be. I went to an all girls school, and from this all of our school plays were girls pretending to be men. Some wonderful actresses, but the worst men you’ve ever seen!

    • As a matter of fact, Meryl Streep did play a totally convincing male role in HBO’s Angels in America. And she deserves to win the Academy Award for her poetic performance in “Iron Lady,” another milestone in an unmatched career. Here’s a question for you and your readers, Bryce. Any convincing males playing females? I vote no. Although cross-dressing actors seem to have a lot more fun with all the drag. Think Tootsie and Some Like It Hot, both world-class comedies featuring utterly unconvincing (but hilarious) she-males.

      • See, Sherry, this is why we love to have you part of The Smack! You always know things we don’t.

        And for readers who want to read some of the best written, most literate, film criticism (and funny) you’ll find anywhere on the web, please check out Sherry’s work here at Movie Smackdown. Here’s her URL:

      • Sherry,
        We were having this conversation on our Facebook page (check it out). I nominate Steve Martin as the best ever man-playing-a-woman, not to mention the best ever man-playing-a-woman-playing-a-man. And he didn’t even need help from makeup or wardrobe!

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