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Glenn Close receives Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award

Old Saybrook — While accepting the Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award in Old Saybrook on Saturday, actress Glenn Close spoke about Hepburn’s influence on her and about meeting the legend.

The award is given by the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center to someone who embodies Hepburn’s “spirit, independence and character.”

At the gala ceremony on the Saybrook Town Green, Close said, “I am moved and humbled to accept an award inspired by the great and incomparable Katharine Hepburn.”

During the day Saturday, Close got a tour of the former Hepburn estate in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook.

“I grew up in the fields and woods of Connecticut, in Greenwich, and I’d never been to Old Saybrook or to Fenwick, so I am thrilled to be here on this incredibly beautiful day,” Close said.

In preparation for the gala, Close said, “I was thinking of my connections with Miss Hepburn. And it feels so presumptuous because she was such an icon to me.”

She said she always wished she were as tall and thin as Hepburn. She read in Hepburn’s memoir “Me” that the Hepburns once had a sign above the mantle saying “Listen to the song of life,” and Close has a sign with the same adage in her dining room.

When Close was a senior at The College of William & Mary, she knew she wanted to be an actress but didn’t know quite how to start. William & Mary didn’t have the sort of direct line to the profession the way that, say, Juilliard did. Close was painting scenery for a production one night when she watched Hepburn’s famous TV interview with Dick Cavett. (Cavett, by the way, won the inaugural Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award last year.)

“It mesmerized me. I loved everything about her. I loved how she dressed. I loved that it was spontaneous. I loved what she said. I loved what she stood for,” Close recalled. “I loved that we both had doctors for fathers and that we were from Connecticut. At the end of it, something kind of — a penny dropped, and I said to myself: if that’s what you respect and that’s what you want to be, then do it!”

The next day, she asked the head of the theater department to nominate her for two series of auditions. That led to her first job, on Broadway.

“That was the beginning,” she said.

Discussing auditioning later for Broadway’s “Barnum,” Close said, “I had heard they were looking for a young Katharine Hepburn, a plain New England woman.”

Close nabbed the part, and director George Roy Hill saw her in that show. He asked her to read for the Jenny character in “The World According to Garp,” which led to the first of Close’s six Oscar nominations.

“He said it was the kind of straight-backed stillness that I had that made him think of me for that role,” she said.

In 1990, Close finally got to meet her idol. She was one of the actresses who celebrated Hepburn at the Kennedy Center Honors. Close remembered how, as a clip of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was being screened featuring Spencer Tracy, she heard from the balcony (in the retelling, Close went into a spot-on Katharine Hepburn impression), “Oh, Spencah!”

The Kennedy Center Honors, Close said, is one of the glitziest social events in Washington, D.C., where women want to show off their jewels and gowns. Hepburn, on the other hand, dressed in a black raincoat, black turtleneck, black slacks and shiny black Reeboks.

“And she looked beautiful,” Close said.

Hepburn went backstage afterward, and Close told her the story about being a college senior and seeing Hepburn’s Cavett interview. Hepburn later wrote a letter to Close, which now hangs in the hallway to her bedroom.

At the gala, Close read aloud what Hepburn had written: “Dear Glenn Close, A great big hug for your sweet contribution. I’m glad I persuaded you when you were a mere child to join this terrible profession, this terrifying profession, and, let’s face it, this delicious way to spend your life. With affectionate thanks, Kate Hep.”

Close wasn’t just the honoree at the gala; she was also part of the auction, where a Sunday brunch with the star at the Saybrook Point Inn was up for bid. Edie and Skip Gengras won the brunch for $5,000; Edie Gengras was honorary chair of the gala, and Close, as she noted, had borrowed Skip’s reading glasses so she could reference her notes during her speech.

Ann Nyberg, the WTNH news anchor who is vice president of The Kate, introduced Close during the gala ceremony.

“We are over the moon that one of America’s most revered and prolific actresses has come to the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, known as The Kate. Glenn Close is the embodiment of the spirit of Katharine Hepburn,” Nyberg said.

Both have careers that spanned decades and mediums, from film to stage to TV, and both have won multitudinous awards, Nyberg noted.

Nyberg touched on some of Close’s most famous performances.

“You frightened us all to death in your role in the movie ‘Fatal Attraction.’ It is a rather guilty pleasure to watch such evil, as we all think how delicious revenge could be,” she said.

Nyberg spoke about seeing Close in “Sunset Boulevard” on Broadway 23 years ago and recalled what a thrilling performance it was. Nyberg then brought out the “Sunset Boulevard” refrigerator magnet she still owns.

“We honor you this evening for so many reasons,” Nyberg said. “You are a true champion for mental health issues, making it better for so many to talk about it and to get help.”

Close co-founded the nonprofit Bring Change 2 Mind to try to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.

“You believe in getting behind women’s issues and gay rights. Hepburn never shied away from causes she felt strongly about — ever. You share that,” Nyberg said.

“Hepburn called herself fascinating. And she was. And Glenn, so are you,” Nyberg said. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for coming here to Old Saybrook, the place Hepburn called her paradise, to allow us to honor you for all you have given the art and beyond.”



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