Pryce is marvelous as phony old goat Joe, who’s always cracking walnuts he carries in his pocket, or inscribing love notes on their shells to give to young women he seduces, which started with Joan when she was his student at Smith College and he was a nobody short-story writer. In flashbacks, Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s look-alike daughter) reveals that she knows the lit biz better than Joe does. She pens a perfect story about the first wife from whom she’s about to steal Joe and edits his manuscripts more extensively than Max Perkins did Thomas Wolfe’s. She gets a job at a 1960s publishing house, where editors disparage “lady writers.” (Elizabeth McGovern, 57, has a fine cameo as one who advises Joan to quit writing.) When the editors say they want a Jewish novelist (“All the big houses have one, where’s ours?”), Joan lands Joe the book contract that makes his name. Not hers.
With brisk and total mastery, Pryce and Close sketch the sweet and sour intimacies of a long marriage, but it’s Close you can’t stop watching. Her expert face registers multiple emotions like a pond caressed and troubled by shifting winds, especially when Joe tells people she’s no writer, or crushes the hopes of their resentful writer son (Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons), or reluctantly hands her the walnut shell he’d inscribed with the name of a gorgeous young Swedish photographer at the Nobel ceremony.
When Joe’s would-be biographer (a wonderfully, sinisterly insinuating Christian Slater) quizzes Joan on Joe’s closetful of nasty secrets — sex is the least of it — her protean expressions suggest more than she confesses. Her entire performance, as artful as anything she’s done and less emotionally remote than most, builds up to a final showdown that is nothing short of superb.
With brisk and total mastery, Pryce and Close sketch the sweet and sour intimacies of a long marriage
The Wife is tailor-made for a grownup audience, but it’s a bit too neatly tailored with good, restrained taste. The plot is so abundantly true as to be overly familiar. Joe is like way too many adulterous literary giants from the ‘60s, like Kurt Vonnegut, who viciously caricatured his wife and mistress (both more literary than he) in his autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five. But the acting of Pryce, Slater and, towering above all, Close raises the movie to must-see status.
The Wife is a triumph in several ways. Studios rejected the screenplay’s female-power message for 14 years, and now it’s ideally timed to cash in on the #MeToo era. Close, who got her first film (and Oscar nom) at 35 with The World According to Garp, keeps getting better as an actor, yet tantalizingly has been denied the top prize. When Fatal Attraction’s ending was changed to kill her character to audience cheers, she yelled at Michael Douglas, “What if it was your character?” He said one must bow to commercial reality — letting the guy, not the girl, get away with sin made it a hit, earning about a third of a billion dollars and another Oscar nomination for her.
How satisfying it would be if this time, after a lifetime of perfecting her craft, she won at last.