Movie a Day Blog had been hearing all fall that Julianne Moore was a lock to win the Best Actress Oscar this year for her unflinching performance in STILL ALICE (2014, Theatrical) as a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
There are several other strong female roles in films this year, such as GONE GIRL (2014, Movie a Day 10/17/14) and WILD (2014, Movie a Day 12/14/14). but once you’ve seen Moore in STILL ALICE, you realize that for once, the buzz is right. This is the best performance by an actress this year, and maybe in several years.
There are more and more films made about Alzheimer’s as the disease strikes a greater number people at an earlier age. Few movies can compare with the power of AWAY FROM HER (2006), in which Julie Christie was heartbreaking as a woman who forgets who her husband is and transfers her love and affection to a another man in her assisted living facility.
STILL ALICE does reach the depths of tragedy that AWAY FROM HER evoked because of its sole focus on one character. Moore’s Alice is a brilliant professor of linguistics who finds that her best skill is deserting her: her ability to remember and use words. The decline at first is slow, and we discover why; it turns out smart people use their more advanced brains to accomplish otherwise failing functions, and thus disguise the symptoms.
Kirsen Stewart, slowly redeeming her acting career from the TWILIGHT films, is excellent as Moore’s prickly daughter, combative with her mother on a normal day, and the normal days quickly end. But Stewart is the only other character given any real screen time or development. Alec Baldwin is severely miscast as Moore’s generally uncaring doctor husband, far more concerned with his own career advancement that the rapid advancement of his wife’s symptoms.
The shocking aspect of STILL ALICE is just how quickly Moore’s professional demeanor and personal warmth deteriorate and slowly disappear. One day she’s carrying on a spirited conversation, and the next she is confused about where she is and what year it is. Her other children are briefly sketched in and act accordingly, first concerned and then horrified, but they are never more than stick figures of compassion and confusion.
It’s Moore’s show, and she inhabits it totally. We ache for Alice is she loses one little bit of her memory and consciousness at a time, but quite honestly, I was never greatly moved.
AWAY FROM HER had me sobbing by its bittersweet conclusion, but I was dry-eyed throughout STILL ALICE. This is absolutely no criticism of Moore or her character, but more the prosaic filmmaking of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. These were the guys, after all, who made THE FLUFFER (2001), a gay porn comedy.
They’ve come a long way, so to speak, but STILL ALICE has no tension of its own outside of Moore’s bravura turn. The family is there to cry and look appalled by the gradual disintegration of their lovely and intelligent mother’s mind, but other than Stewart, no one has a real reaction of rage and despair. Baldwin literally checks out of the story and added nothing when he was in it, so it’s not a big loss.
It would be nice for Moore to find a movie with a star role for her that is more than the sum of her performance, which is what STILL ALICE settles for. She is one of the great actresses of our era, equally comfortable with comedy as well as drama, and someone ought to be writing great parts for her. STILL ALICE shows what she’s capable of. Now she needs a vehicle that matches it.