Many Golden Globes viewers were taken off guard last week when Lady Gaga—the assumed Best Actress front-runner since A Star Is Born was just a twinkle in Bradley Cooper’s eye—lost to Glenn Close for The Wife. You might have heard several million Globes watchers cry out at once, “The what?”
The Wife, after all, was an August release that went mostly unmentioned in most publications’ year-end coverage, including Slate’s own. When Close’s win was announced, one New Republic writer even congratulated Delta Air Lines for being “the only place where you can see The Wife,” and while that wasn’t technically accurate (you could also see it on, for example, United), it spoke to a larger truth about how few people had seen and could see this movie. So, for the millions of Americans who haven’t seen The Wife, we’ve put together this guide.
Wait—Glenn Close could really win for The Wife?
Definitely! Indeed, according to respected prognosticators like Scott Feinberg of the Hollywood Reporter and the awards tracker Gold Derby, she just became the new front-runner. It’s true that the Best Actress award often crowns promising ingenues: Think Emma Stone for La La Land in 2017, Brie Larson for Room in 2016, and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook in 2013. But just as often it’s given to beloved veterans in middling or controversial fare, like Frances McDormand for Three Billboards last year, Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine in 2014, and Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady in 2012. And that’s especially true when they’re overdue, as when Julianne Moore won in 2015 for Still Alice. Close’s six Oscar nods and zero wins—many of those nominations for films we still remember like Fatal Attraction and The Big Chill—will work in her favor.
OK, but is she good?
Let’s take a step back. What is this movie about exactly?
It’s an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name. Close plays Joan Castleman, the second wife of a philandering, narcissistic author (played by Jonathan Pryce) on the verge of accepting the Nobel Prize for literature. She’s thrilled for him but disappointed that she’s only seen by the world, and maybe even by her children, as his wife. But soon, we get inklings that Joan deserves a lot more credit for his success than letting him know when he’s got crumbs in his beard.
So what’s so good about her performance?
The layers! Close makes you feel every year of the nearly four decades the couple has been together—ever since he was her creative writing professor—as well as every sediment of pride, rage, resentment, isolation, and co-dependence in their relationship.
Wow, that sounds great! So I should see it right away?
Close’s sensational, understated performance is the main reason the movie reached an 84 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not that that’s the only thing it’s got going for it: It’s handsome (if unexceptional-looking), and its subject matter fits right in with the #MeToo zeitgeist. (It’s not even the only 2018 movie about the reality that many writers’ wives have played an essential role in their husbands’ achievements.)
So why shouldn’t I see it?
It feels more like an allegorical fable than a nuanced portrait, with Joan and her husband resembling figures in a cautionary tale more than believable characters. Plus, its tone is confusing: It’s neither a triumphant crowd-pleaser nor an emotionally complex art-house film. Instead, it’s something unsatisfying in-between. I could get say more, but I’d be getting into spoilers …
Maybe you should spoil away for those who probably won’t see it anyway?
It turns out that Joan was the virtuoso who wrote her husband’s novels, and he was mostly happy for the world to fête his genius. She thought she could live with the lie, but during his Nobel acceptance speech, she hits her breaking point.
What if I still want to see it?
The movie is back in more theaters now after its Globes win: It expanded from playing in 10 theaters to playing in 156 the following weekend, so that’s good news if you live near a major city and want to see it in on the big screen. But that also means it may be longer before it’s available for streaming.
OK, but should Close win?
Sure! Her performance is masterful, and Close has for too long been an underrated (and underscheduled) actress. Ranking performances is always a bit silly, but this one is certainly worthy. Even if I’d personally rather give it to Olivia Colman for The Favourite, I’d be happy with either of them winning.
Other than Close’s performance, is there any other reason to care about this movie?
Probably! In her Golden Globes speech, Close said that “it took 14 years to make this film”—she thinks it’s because it’s called The Wife. The IMDb lists more than 200 projects with the word wife in the title—as many as the number of movie and TV show titles with the meaningless descriptor American in them—but Close’s larger point about the difficulty of getting cinematic stories about (especially older) women off the ground remains an important one. Hollywood is still relegating actresses to old-fashioned supportive-spouse roles, and The Wife chooses to instead decry the sublimation of female creativity so that men can continue patting one another on the back. It’s certainly a relevant story. Too bad it’s not a better told one.