Ever since making his debut in 1999 with “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her,” Rodrigo Garcia has carved out a singular niche in Hollywood as a director who has a special touch with women. In that first film, an omnibus of intersecting vignettes about disparate women living in Los Angeles, he worked with an ensemble that included Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Kathy Baker and a surprisingly serious Cameron Diaz, in one of the first roles that proved she was more than a piece of blond camera candy.
Garcia’s next film, 2005’s “Nine Lives,” was a similarly structured study of women’s experiences, again featuring Close and Hunter but also starring a very young Dakota Fanning and Amanda Seyfried, as well as Robin Wright Penn, who delivered a memorable, virtually wordless performance as a former party girl who runs into an old flame at a supermarket. In 2009, he made “Mother and Child,” starring Naomi Watts and Annette Bening as an adopted daughter and a birth mother, respectively. It’s no wonder that by that time Garcia was being compared to George Cukor, whose sensitivity with women characters and female-driven stories made him a favorite with such stars as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford.
Now, with “Albert Nobbs,” Garcia delivers a twist on the material he’s spent a career mastering. In the film, Close stars as a woman in 19th-century Ireland who gets work at a Dublin hotel by passing as a man. Based on a play (also starring Close) adapted from a short story by George Moore, “Albert Nobbs” co-stars Janet McTeer as a friend of Close’s title character, who also passes as a man but who lives in a functional marriage with another woman. A clutch of good reviews and notices for both Close and McTeer’s performances culminated last week in Oscar nominations for both actresses.
It’s difficult to think of a male director other than Garcia — whom Close calls “just a big bear of a sexy, warm man” — who could understand the nuances, not just of being a woman in a man’s world, but a woman impersonating a man in a man’s world.
“The question of female identity is still incredibly fertile,” Garcia said over lunch at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Albert Nobbs” had its world premiere in September. “What are you, apart from mother, daughter, wife, sister? I find that infinitely fascinating.”
If Garcia has become the “women’s director” in Hollywood, he added, “it’s not what I set out to do for myself. The ideas just come to me, and they always start with, ‘There’s a woman who . . .’ I don’t know what it is. Jason Isaacs, the guy who played with Robin Wright in ‘Nine Lives,’ said to me the first day that I met him, ‘You write about women because it allows you to address emotional subjects emotionally, and you can hide behind that.’ I was a little shocked — it’s like being told that you need to lose weight. But he was right. I like emotional subjects.
“My movies are so autobiographical that sometimes when we're shooting them I’m behind the camera and I shrink with embarrassment,” he continued. “It’s like pulling my pants down. Even if it’s a woman talking about her job, going to the supermarket, whether she adopted a child or wants to marry this person — it’s so personal, but it’s completely dramatized.” (Garcia, 52, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, an elementary school teacher, and two daughters.)
Close attributes Garcia’s affinity for women’s stories to “his DNA. He grew up with a great mother and a wonderful grandmother and lots of aunts, and he’s been surrounded by strong, interesting women,” she said. “Anybody can blow up cars. A director who can really get into the mysteries and complexity of women is very special.”
Garcia grew up in Mexico, the son of a mother he describes as “a potent force” and a father who happened to be the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “My father came to Mexico to write screenplays, and I think he also had the desire to direct movies, although fortunately for him that didn’t pan out,” he said. Indeed, at the beginning of his career, Garcia underplayed the connection with his famous father; it’s only recently, while working with HBO — especially “Carnivale” and “Six Feet Under” — that he’s begun playing with magical realism more associated with his father: “supernatural stuff, fantasies, the dead talk[ing] to the living, all that stuff that I’ve avoided.”
For the most part, though, Garcia’s signature is modern-day realism, from which the spare, period-authentic “Albert Nobbs” strikes a marked departure. Still, Garcia considers it just as deeply personal as his previous films. “I feel a little bit like Nobbs,” he said. “Everyone has this secret person inside, everyone is [doing] a performance. Also, machismo is so horrible that sometimes I feel like I’m less of a man because I make these movies about women, and I continue to do it because I can’t help it. But a part of me sometimes feels like I’m an inadequate guy. When people say to me, ‘You’re the George Cukor of your generation’ I think, ‘Gay?’ And that’s because that’s where we are. I’m proud of it, but part of me thinks, ‘Oh, I’m less of a guy than those guys who make the real movies.
“I do have a couple of scripts that I’m trying to get off the ground that have men in the lead,” he continued. “In fact, one of them has almost not a single woman in it.
“It’s so hard to write about men without anyone invading Poland or blowing up a building or killing a lion,” he said resignedly before talking about his next project. “It’s a series for the Internet,” he said enthusiastically. “A series of twelve six- or seven-minute episodes that are all about the lives of women.”
opened Friday at area theaters.