I suppose we could explore hundreds of great writers and their wives’ relationships. Dickens apparently abused his wife, as Joyce did his beloved Nora; didn’t poor Alice spend much of her life (as did the young Joan) typing up her lover Gertrude’s almost ineligible manuscripts. The list goes on. Joan, in this film, is complicit in the secret of his success (only later admitting her role as “kingmaker”) because of her love. She may be angry, even bitter for all the years in which she has had to stand aside while her husband basked in the endless praise of his peers; but like so very many wives (and occasionally husbands as well) before women’s liberation (and I suspect still today), she sacrificed her life to the man she vitally loved.
Never before (well, seldom before) has an actress so portrayed the numerous contradictory feelings she has. In one shot, her face flashes signals of love, anger, bitterness, hate, and love again for the man to whom she is married. In a marvelous scene with the sleazy would-be biographer (Christian Slater) she plays a tough, totally perceptive opponent, a slightly drunken and bitter housewife, and a slightly flirtatious woman of an older age—without giving up any of her personae. This is, Close makes clear, a woman of such depth that we don’t quite know what to make of her. Joan Castleman is a woman no man should or could possess, a genius at knowing how to keep the man she loves while expressing her own identity—if only one might look deeply enough or might ask the right questions.