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Oscar Wilde Awards Continues Tradition of Honoring Creative Visionaries

The Wife - Production & Publicity
Graeme Hunter Pictures

The 2019 recipients of the Oscar Wilde Award, now in its 14th year, amply embody the values of sponsoring organization the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, created by Trina Vargo “with a vision,” as she puts it, “of making an old relationship contemporary, and inclusive.”

Slated to be feted on Feb. 21 at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot HQ in Santa Monica are part-Irish Glenn Close, as well as Ireland-born Aidan Gillen and Chris O’Dowd. Each one’s resume would surely inspire an appreciative nod from any Hibernian. In addition, each has contributed to an important — and remarkably timely — Irish-set film of this decade: Close starred in and co-wrote 2011’s gender-shifting Victorian fable “Albert Nobbs,” while the men played in 2014’s examination of clergy abuse’s legacy, “Calvary.”

Close earned a 1982 Obie for playing the biological female posing as a male hotel butler. “I never forgot her,” the star says. “It basically took me 14 years from the time I got the rights to the time we gathered in Dublin to shoot it.” Her script, she knew, “had to be ‘Irishized’—there was no way I knew the Irish idiom,” and “rather cheekily” she approached Man Booker Prize winner John Banville, “arguably the greatest living Irish writer, which I didn’t know at the time,” she laughs. A lively collaboration resulted. “I remember a character had to say ‘My father was a terrible drunk,’ and John came back with, ‘My pa was a great whore for the drink.’ That was beyond my capability, coming up with something like that!”

Originally a working-class Londoner, Albert is up against it in her adopted country. “There were more beggars on the streets of Dublin than there were in Calcutta at the time,” Close notes. “If she didn’t have a job she’d end up in a workhouse or be a prostitute, which is why she disguises herself.” Grimly citing Queen Victoria’s comment “feminists ought to get a good whipping,” Close’s passion for the tale is unmistakable, and it led to her sixth Oscar nomination. (No. 7, of course, is for “The Wife” this year.)

Gillen is best known for pivotal roles in two HBO smashes. His countrymen particularly warmed to “The Wire” because of “its underdog spirit” and proliferation of Irish-American characters. As for “Game of Thrones,” whose principal filming base is Northern Ireland, Gillen sees a connection to the Oscar Wilde Award in crediting Vargo with “advising various U.S. governments on Irish affairs, and not infrequently playing a part in the installation of the peace process,” without which the idea of hosting a major world production would be inconceivable. “We’ve come a long way in a very short time,” he says simply.

“Calvary,” voted best film in its year’s Irish Film and Television Awards, faces up to Catholic Church abuses in an unexpected way. “Let’s have a priest that’s good,” Gillen cites the film as saying, “in a community of people who are cynical, snide hypocrites. And making the hero of a priest, why not?—and hold the mirror up to our society that way. While at the same time giving voice to victims of that abuse.”

Central to that story is fellow honoree O’Dowd, of whom Gillen’s a fan. The breakout comedy star (and IFTA supporting actor winner) of “Bridesmaids,” and creator-star of the acclaimed semiautobiographical “Moone Boy,” is “perfect” in Epix’s series “Get Shorty”: “It’s always good when someone’s latest, or near-latest work is their best, and ‘Get Shorty’ I think surprised people by its gravity, and also its levity.”

Gillen and O’Dowd didn’t much interact during their two brief “Calvary” scenes, but can cement their bond at Bad Robot to the strains of Irish band Vinci. (“There is something cinematic about their sound, which I think our guests are going to love,” Vargo says.) They can also schmooze with Close’s presenter Melissa McCarthy. A lead actress nominee for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” McCarthy and Close bring a coveted extra touch of Oscar to the Oscar Wilde Awards.

Meanwhile, Allen Leech will do the honors for Gillen and Abrams presents to O’Dowd.

Each year’s Irish nominees are routinely invited to the Alliance’s ceremony.

All involved anticipate an enjoyable night. “I think it’s fabulous!,” Close exclaims, reporting she passed along some family names and was told, “Yes, you’re one of us!”

“Well isn’t this grand,” O’Dowd Tweeted.

Adds Gillen, “I’ve always had an eye on the Oscar Wildes and the people who’ve been honored in the past, so I’m quite flattered to be in that company.”

He notes, “Americans have been really welcoming to me and lots of other Irish actors,” and “to be honored in such a high-profile yet low-pressure, low-tension way is what appealed to me, because I believe it’s unfussy but fun. And casual. But whether that’s casual by Irish standards or casual by Los Angeles standards remains to be seen. So I’ll make sure I’m prepared for both.”