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As dusk arrives, the shadows and neon lights begin to swallow up Hollywood. In a dressing room deep within the Shubert Theater, Glenn Close, fresh-scrubbed and pared down to jeans and a shirt, begins to disappear, too. Layer by layer, the face becomes deadly white, the eyes dark and heavy with mascara, the lips blood red.

By the time she takes the stage, Close has slipped so deeply inside the skin of Norma Desmond, the aging, reclusive silent screen star who is the central character in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Sunset Boulevard," that there is nothing to distract from the illusion.Like a chameleon, Close moves from Norma to two very different characters in a pair of new films. In the mordant comedy "The Paper" she plays Alicia Clark, the tough, sexy managing editor of a big-city tabloid. Close wears her hair loose and long, and her sarcasm is sharp and biting.

Ferula in Bille August's film "The House of the Spirits," opening on Friday and based on Isabel Allende's novel about a Chilean family, is quite the opposite. As a painfully repressed spinster, Close is shrouded in black, her dark hair pulled into a severe bun, her skin pallid, as if dusted with ash. The portrayal offers a harrowing glimpse of a lifetime of love unrequited and passions forever held in check.

Yet finding Close in her parts is a bit like finding Waldo. She is everywhere - and nowhere. She does not define the roles she plays as much as they define her. So difficult is she to pigeonhole that no one description really fits. She's not the classic beauty, the bimbo, the tart or the damsel in distress. As a result, she has spent a lifetime being the long shot.

So the announcement last month that Close had managed one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in Broadway history should not have been surprising. She, not Patti LuPone, was chosen to bring Norma Desmond to the New York stage this fall.

LuPone, the star of the London production of "Sunset" and known for her remarkable abilities as a singer, had been under contract to star in the Broadway production. But Lloyd Webber decided to gamble instead on the star-power that Close has exhibited in Los Angeles.

While Close doesn't believe that decisions about acting are always conscious, she does acknowledge that each character she protrayed touched an emotional core within her. "Maybe I have chosen these roles because there was something in me that wanted to explore in that direction," the actress says.

Audiences first met the woman on film without having a chance to know the girl. The 1982 film "The World According to Garp" etched Close into the collective consciousness as Jenny Fields, a larger-than-life matron, asexual and ageless. Close was 36 playing the 60-year-old mother to Garp (Robin Williams, who was only five years her junior).

Of all the characters Close has given life to, none have seemed remotely in need of rescuing. She even managed to imbue the largely comatose Sunny von Bulow with an edgy presence in the film "Reversal of Fortune."

In contrast to so many of her characters, Close seems quietly shy, self-effacing. Perhaps because nearly all her roles have been so fierce, the actress seems more delicate, more vulnerable, in person. Just hours before she will begin yet another of her eight weekly performances in "Sunset Boulevard" in Los Angeles, Close, her silvery blond hair cropped short, sits with damp curls framing her face.

Draped on a Victorian love seat in her dressing room at the Shubert Theater, Close hardly seems the formidable star, nor one who's due on stage shortly for an emotionally draining performance. She creates a comfortable intimacy as she nurses a cup of tea and orders take-out Italian food for six.

She paints a star on the cheek of her 51/2-year-old daughter, Annie Maude, who comes with her to the theater, as she talks about her work.

But there is a feeling that most people are invited only into the anteroom of her psyche. Like Norma, Close uses her own emotional reserves to protect the pieces of herself that are breakable.

The composer Cy Coleman still remembers her 1980 audition for a part in his Broadway musical "Barnum," in which Close was ultimately cast as P.T. Barnum's wife.

"Her voice was in the wrong place for what I imagined the score to be," Coleman says. But she went back to him several times trying to get at what he was looking for. "It's hard to communicate what you want in music because it's an abstract," says Coleman. "But by the time she'd gotten to it, she gave me exactly what I wanted."

She was equally persistent after what she felt was a disastrous audition for the role of Anne Boleyn in the Broadway show "Rex." Close wrote to the producers pleading for another chance; she was ultimately cast as Mary Tudor.

She openly campaigned for the part of Alex in the 1987 film "Fatal Attraction," believing the role would help redefine her "earth mother" image in film. When the director, Adrian Lyne, later looked at an audition tape, he found that she had given each take a completely different texture. Her near obsession breeds a certain fearlessness in her, he says, adding, "She's willing to be hideously wrong to get it right."

Over the years that fearlessness has become the subtext that informs her characters. It was in evidence last spring when Lloyd Webber was having dinner with her in London to talk about "Sunset Boulevard."

The composer and the actress had spent the afternoon around a piano with Close auditioning for the role. "Glenn said to me," recalls Lloyd Webber, " `if I do this, I will be walking a tightrope, and I would like you to walk that tightrope with me. I have to go to the very edge of what I'm doing.' "

Or, as Hurt says, "Glennie approaches a part by jumping out the window and having it take shape from there."

She began rehearsals on "Sunset Boulevard" last summer just weeks after part of a lung was removed to help relieve a chronic respiratory problem. When she got angry notes from ticket holders who were disappointed that she was ill for a performance - she missed two since the previews began in November - she wrote each one of them an apology.

Just after high school, Close married the rock guitarist Cabot Wade; they divorced when she was in college. Her second marriage, in 1984, to the venture capitalist James Marlas ended a few years later while she was filming "Fatal Attraction."

When she returned to reshoot the ending of the movie, she became involved with John Starke, a producer, and she became pregnant. Their daughter, Annie, was born when she was 42.

"Annie has changed my life," says Close. "I'm basically kind of a compulsive person; I love to have a sense of order in my life. But there are a lot of little things you let go of when you have a child, and you want to give that child a lot of time, which I do with Annie."

Close has always brought Annie with her to film locations, nanny in tow, and even to the theater when she's on stage. She envisions Annie's education as an unconventional one.

"Down on the Portuguese seaside, when we did `House of the Spirits,' she had a wonderful classroom," says Close. "They'd go to a eucalyptus forest and goat farms and to the beach. She'll learn in her own way."

There is also a new man in her life, Steve Beers, a production carpenter on "Sunset Boulevard" who is responsible for keeping the highly complex sets and staging working property. Close vehemently resists public dissection of her relationships and of Beers she will just say, "It's so new, and if you talk about it it becomes like a shark feeding frenzy in the media."

Her breakup with Starke and affairs with actor Woody Harrelson and hockey star Cam Neely were closely tracked by the tabloids; about such times she will only admit that there have been painful missteps in her personal life.

"I think she is much more confident in her professional life, and stronger, than in her personal life," says Hurt. "Her professional life is easier to work out." Certainly for Close, professional success has been easier to attain than personal success, and perhaps that is why she holds Annie so dear.

What she seeks is simplicity in her life and complexity in her roles. How she moves so seamlessly between the two is a mystery she prefers to leave unsolved. "I know that I want to live my life simply," she says, "so I can go out and do crazy and daring things in my work, emotionally fling myself over the cliff. I can't go at life like that. Life is a lot more dangerous."

Outsiders rarely glimpse the Glennie side of Close, the side that is funny, sometimes even risque. Jim Dale, who co-starred with her in "Barnum," remembers waiting in the wings for an entrance, with her on the other side of the stage. "She would stick out her tongue," he says, "then lift up these great hooped skirts and flash a gam. I'd be falling down laughing."

Hurt met Close when they were both in the New Phoenix company and got to know each other better as roommates when the company went on the road. Years later, when they worked together again in "The World According to Garp," they shared a house on Fishers Island. "We'd have baseball games, make pina coladas for everyone," says Hurt. "Glennie is terrific at keeping friends and wonderful at bringing people together."

Jeremy Irons first worked with Close in 1984 when they co-starred in the Broadway production of "The Real Thing," the Tom Stoppard play for which she won a Tony, then again in the 1990 film "Reversal of Fortune" and most recently in "The House of the Spirits."

"Glenn's a very tough lady in some ways," he says, "although she has a very soft center. We're all capable of being the guys and the girls next door, but there is a life and pain, anger, frustrations within that. She's very lacking in pretense when you meet her, and yet she draws on a life which has been fairly complicated."

Of the pleasures of acting on stage, Close says, "Everyone should have that feeling of an audience leaping to their feet and actually screaming because of something you've done."

Night after night in Los Angeles, that is where the audience has been - on its feet. As she has taken shape over the months, Norma is truly larger than life. Even her dark Gothic mansion, with its towering walls and endless spiral staircase, fails to diminish her. Lloyd Webber believes that Close has taken her performance to the edge "brilliantly."