Glenn Close knows evil. You don’t become “The Most Hated Woman in America,” as a tabloid tagged her after her unforgettable role in “Fatal Attraction,” without some deep insights into the dark side.
So when it came time to take on Cruella De Vil - that puppy-snatching, fur-coveting, monstrously manipulative villain of Disney’s live-action version of its 1961 animated classic “101 Dalmatians” - she knew there was no turning back.
“I was really determined that Cruella be as bad as possible,” said the veteran stage and screen actress, who spent four months with a team of makeup artists and costume designers shaping the very icon of evil. “I hope Cruella is the character that people love to hate.”
Cat’s eyes and joker’s mouths were considered and tossed aside before filming began, even as Cruella’s wardrobe became more and more outrageous, her furs a study in endangered animalia. Close ultimately realized what she suspected all along - it’s Cruella’s inner character that makes her so terrifying. With a soul so dark, she didn’t need frightful makeup.
After all, what kind of a woman would skin puppies just to wear their spots and cackle delightedly while saying, “I love the smell of near-extinction!”
“I know! She’s horrible!” said Close, cringing at her own creation during an interview.
“I think Cruella basically has no redeeming human characteristics. Except she does have a sense of humor, albeit wicked,” Close said. “She’s a GREAT character. She’s gleeful in her evilness, and there’s something very engaging about that.”
At 49, Close has played a range of great characters, from sensible mother figures in “The World According to Garp,” “The Big Chill,” “The Natural” and “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” to more troubled matriarchs in “Something About Amelia” and “Hamlet.”
She’s won Tony Awards with Broadway’s “Death and the Maiden,” “The Real Thing” and “Sunset Boulevard,” and turned in award-winning TV work, most recently as a lesbian colonel battling the Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story.”
But her darker roles remain the most memorable. Her Marquise de Merteuil in “Dangerous Liaisons” was a master of seduction and betrayal.
Almost a decade after “Fatal Attraction,” her portrayal of Alex Forrest, the one-night fling who became a philandering lawyer’s worst nightmare, remains exhibit “A” whenever the subject of adultery comes up.
“I think she brought a lot of people to the couch, and hopefully it helped them,” she said, grinning. “People still tell me I scared the living, you know, out of men, but I still think that the controversy was healthy. It touched a really sensitive nerve.”
But doesn’t she worry that “101 Dalmatians” might open her up to whole new realms of infamy, frightening small children and making dog owners grip their leashes more tightly whenever she passes by?
“No, I don’t. I hope not, I don’t really look much like her,” she laughs with a glance at her svelte 5-foot-4 figure and short, boyish blond hair.
Besides, hating Cruella is good for the soul, she said.
“I think it’s fun to hate somebody and deplore their behavior and then get a kick out of it. It’s in the tradition of all the great villains,” Close said.
In real life, it must be said, Close nurtures a menagerie of three dogs, two cats, a horse, a pony, three mice and about a half-dozen fish at the suburban home she shares with her daughter, Annie, and her fiance, stage manager Steve Beers.
“I’m an animal person,” said the Connecticut Yankee, who grew up on a 250-acre estate in Greenwich and came of age in the jungles of Africa, where her father, surgeon William Close, opened a clinic in 1960.
“I’ve lived with animals my whole life, and I’ve raised my child surrounded by animals, because I think we have a lot to learn from them. I think they teach you kindness and a lot about love.”
That empathy came in handy on a set where filming had to follow the rhythms of 230 rapidly growing Dalmatians. According to director Stephen Herek, Close was no Norma Desmond when it came time for her scenes.
“If you have a name like D-E-V-I-L, you have to live up to it,” Herek said - and that means giving the devil her due.
“She was an incredible sport. Once it became clear that the vat of molasses was the way the animals were going to deal with Cruella, she almost became joyful that she was going to do it. She never complained. Ever.”
A stunt double went into the sticky mess, but Close did all the rest, surging out of the muck and gasping for air. Actually, that was the easy part - since this was no cartoon, the slapstick had to have consequences, and that meant Cruella had to spend the rest of the movie as a walking vision in slime.
“It was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever had to do,” said Close, who squeezed herself into corsets for “Dangerous Liaisons” just after giving birth to Annie, and endured rapid-fire costume changes for “Sunset Boulevard” every night.
“What was more uncomfortable than being submerged in that slime was the five days of shooting afterwards, where I had to be slimed up before every single shot,” she said. “By the end of the movie, my coat must have weighed 90 pounds, and it was like putting a cow-pie on my head when I put on the wig!”
Still, Close knows that this film was an uncommon opportunity, if only for its contributions to her collection of some of the greatest lines on the stage and screen. Along with “I’m not going to be igNORED, Dan!” and “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. De Mille,” there surely is a place for Cruella’s ominous warning to the animals: “You may have won the battle, but I’ll win the wardrobe!”
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