“Joan, you are my muse.”
These are the five words that charge the seminal moment of Jane Anderson’s and Bjorn Runge’s vivid screen adaption of Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife. They’re muttered with a hoarse, excruciatingly visible effort into a microphone by a man who is looking, all the way through a crowded hall, to his wife. This man is the freshly minted Nobel Prize recipient for Literature, the dining crowd of dignitaries, experts, elites and to-dos, and these words are the closest to a conviction of an offence so great it is about to shatter these two individuals’ lives.
But Runge smartly pulls back from the man, and from the words — instead turning and fixing the lens on the beautifully agonised face of Joan (alias Glenn Close). Joan, the wife, is the point of the scene, yet she won’t say a thing. Instead, at the sound of these words — You Are My Muse — Joan’s expression, with its every conscious detail magnified to us in the centrefold of the frame, absolutely dissolves. Is this humility?
No - there, in the corner of her mouth, goes a slight twitch of the upper lip: a sneer, or a bitten down snarl. Her eyes fix bolt-like to the bottom corner of the frame, not on her husband in grateful surrender but upon something unseen, or, nothing at all — staring beyond the guided cage of the room and the awards ceremony into the dark matter of an inward world. And those eyes are furiously bright, fiercer than the white gold earrings she bears beneath each temple. This isn't the face of a muse, this is the face of a fury. A woman is scorned, and with five words, set ablaze.
For the most part, The Wife is a study of performance — not just the performance of Joan, who is pretending that she didn’t write her husband’s novels for him and cede the credit — but in the greatest, and most silent performance of Glenn Close’s career. In scenes like that of the speech, the camera seems like it was simply plonked before her while men speak laboriously off-screen — not a cinematic device but simply an open receptacle for the agony and rage that free-wheels masterfully across Close’s face before she settles into another brittle veneer of graceful acceptance. The more the men speak, the closer the flash-storm of feeling gets to the surface of her skin. In the end, it isn't the glaring lies, or the affairs, or the petulant neediness of her husband that makes her explode, it is simply the patronising mis-mention of her real truth. In thanking of her that way, her husband gets close but not close enough. Grateful, but not deferential.
As she later howls in explanation, Joan would rather be totally unacknowledged than acknowledged only as a footnote in her husband’s success. To be relegated to the role of the helpful spouse, the inspiring wife, the woman behind the man, is worse than not existing at all. At least then she would non-exist under her own, self-determined parameters. In this way, the film is a masterful depiction of the meaning behind every woman’s silence. Particularly timely with its arts-industry setting, The Wife goes above and beyond.
It is not just a portrait of repressed rage on Close’s behalf, but a larger glance at the prevalence of oppressed, forgotten or shelved female voices that struggle to breathe beneath the deluge of their white-male counterparts. Stephanie Merrit once noted this ongoing discrepancy in The Guardian — pointing out that though women had written the majority of a given year’s best-sellers, they made-up less than half of the titles submitted for literary awards. Scathing in its message and perfectly measured in its technical execution, the film and Close herself have swiftly, and justly, become major players in this year’s awards discussion.
As well as the long-awaited Oscar nomination (and well-speculated, or wished for, win) for Close at the upcoming 91st Academy awards, it has also received accolades at The Golden Globes, SAG, The Hollywood Film awards and the Palm Springs film festival, as well as being nominated at many more. This is a charming success, especially surrounding a role for an older woman (considering the notorious issues with opportunities for actresses over thirty) and anything that celebrates Close is welcome.
At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if this is the sort of recognition that would make the film’s hero, Joan, sneer while the rest of the room applauded; something well-meaning, but frustratingly slim picking in an otherwise morally barren situation. Because that fact is unescapable, it is maddeningly ironic that a film all about the patriarchal, male-dominated system of exposure-to-awards that exists in the literary world is being answered by exposure and awards from an industry that is just as guilty. Hollywood is certainly on par with the publishing world for representation issues. That much was obvious even before, and still after, Weinstein was exposed. This awards season is no different.
It is fascinating to examine where The Wife’s indictment of the silencing of women stands in relation to a year where some of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers, such as Lynne Ramsey (You were never really here), Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive me?) and Debra Granik (Leave no Trace), were totally shut out of most ‘Best Director’ categories. A year where Widows, an uncounted triumph for box-office and critical impact, with its fully female ensemble, has had no look-in on a ‘Best Picture’ nod. The narrative of The Wife even serves as an uncannily meta reflection of the fanfare around The Favourite, a film written by Deborah Davis, fifteen years before it caught Yorgos Lanthimos’ fish-eye and has somehow become a testament among many to the male director’s comic voice rather than to the female screenwriter’s baseline of wit. Is Deborah Davis merely a “muse” now as well, rather than the actual author from which men like Lanthimos draw forth their success?
Make no mistake, The Wife itself is not the issue. The fact that last year, only 35% of films contained more than 10 speaking roles for women as opposed to the 82% for men, is closer to the issue. Yet, the films very existence in the zeitgeist — discussed in the same breath as the spectre of gongs and statuettes — means that this very important point has been forgotten somewhere along the way, glossed over with glitter, blinded from sight by the bright lights. As it always does, Hollywood utilises the glamour of awards season to hide its treachery, divvying out small portions of awards and attention to female filmmakers extremely loudly, then turning over, self-satisfied to rest. All the while, it is ignoring the fact that it is an industry that permitted, in 2018, only 20% of feature films to be directed by women, with much less awarded after.
If the powers that be in Hollywood believe that thanking women on the way out after another year of cinema is the same as properly utilising them, or that awarding The Wife is the same as really reflecting on its lessons, they are just as enraging as the plagiarist accepting the Nobel for Literature. To truly honour the spirit of Joan and of Close’s powerhouse performance would be to demonstrate palpable change, on set as well as on stage, behind the camera and before it. To hire women — older women, trans women, women of colour — and when these women somehow make it through the constraints of studio gatekeepers to make their films, to actually give them due credit for what they are: artists of equal measure, and not just the passive placeholders for inspiration for the men in the room. It is no longer enough to be a man’s muse, gazed upon but not listened to. All around these ceremonies, and in the industry at large, is the sound of the silence — the very sound that filled Glenn Close’s screen-time, that roared out from her closed-off face. It is the sound of female voices. They must be heard.