It's the late 1950s in sexist America, before Title Nine, before the Women's Movement, and before the Equal Rights Amendment. Before Vietnam, the moon landing, Flower Power. A woman's primary role is to marry, bear children, and support her husband.
The main character, Joan Castleman (Close), a student at all-female Smith College, falls in love with her writing professor and ends up breaking up his marriage (although, as we learn later, if it would not have been Joan, it would have been someone else, for Joe cannot keep his pants zipped). Joan marries Joe, and she makes a Solomon-like choice shortly thereafter: give her art over to him so it can live rather than put her own name on her work, because doing so would mean nobody will read it (“Don’t ever think you can get their approval…the men [are] the ones who get to decide who gets to be taken seriously” Elizabeth McGovern’s character tells Joan). Joan is neither Joe’s first nor last extramarital affair, but she sticks with him through subsequent affairs because the only way her novels can live is if she lets her husband publish them under his name. Joe’s own work is pretty pedestrian, although he does serve as Joan’s editor. He also takes care of the children and keeps the house while Joan spends eight hours a day in “his” office banging away on a typewriter.
Over the years, as accolades pile up for Joe’s brilliant work, self-effacing Joan learns to anticipate Joe’s needs even before he’s aware he has them. She is elegant and graceful, and she always says and does the right thing, allowing extremely narcissistic and needy Joe to pretend he’s the genius in the family. Then Joe wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, and they travel to Stockholm for the ceremony. Joan must carry on her role as loyal, supportive wife, even though the praise for Joe’s brilliant work rightfully belongs to her. Watching the subtle twists of mouth and momentary fiery glances from Close makes it hard to tear your eyes away from her when folks are lavishing praise on Joe.
Christian Slater plays a journalist who sniffs out the truth that Joan denies because it would destroy Joe’s unearned reputation and jeopardize his (her!) prize. Close's real-life daughter, Annie Starke, plays Young Joan in flashbacks.
Regarding Pryce’s character, Joe Castleman—I kept thinking, “How would it be to be a serial plagiarist? To take credit for somebody else’s work, to accept praise for something you didn’t do?” Even though Joan’s secret role as the actual writer in the family would be hard for me to play, at least she gets to do the work in the first place, whereas vain, egotistical Joe…can’t. He is a hack that Joan spends her life propping up. Plus he’s a big baby about everything. I would have walked out on him, but Joan is a far better, far more patient person than I. She endures Joe for the sake of her art. Like thousands of people, Joan has decided, “For the sake of this, all the rest.”
If you are a writer who has given up a great deal for your art, you may see yourself in Joan. If you have ever been in a relationship where you sacrifice yourself for the sake of your partner, you may see yourself in Joan. If you want to see an Oscar-worthy performance with nuance in every glance and twist of the mouth, Glenn Close as Joan is worthy of your time.
The film first showed in Toronto, and Benjamin Lee of The Guardian did a dandy interview with Close, which includes an interesting insight into her (arguably) most famous role, Forrest in Fatal Attraction: “That character had a lot of secrets, but there’s no way for the audience to know what her past was. It’s only hinted at when she looks at him giving the bunny to his daughter and then throws up in the bushes...a psychiatrist said if she was molested at an early age, and what she was made to do made her gag and throw up, then that’s her trigger. Someone who’s been abused like that has absolutely no self."
The Wife got an 84 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I thought most of the tomato reviewers were too hard on the movie. Maybe I just appreciated it more because I write, so I get it. Roger Ebert reviews the film here, but it's best to see the film for yourself. Close was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, and we'll find out on February 24 whether she takes the Oscar home.