They say that Julianne Moore is way overdue for an Oscar. She’s been nominated but never won, for Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Far From Heaven and The Hours. Hell, I think she should have been in the race for Safe, Short Cuts, Magnolia, Children of Men, Savage Grace, A Single Man and The Kids Are All Right. You bet your ass that Moore is overdue for Academy love. She’s supremely gifted, possessing the beauty of a true star and the intuitive technique of a true actress.
But here’s the thing. In Still Alice, Moore’s performance as a Columbia linguistics professor exhibiting signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s is so extraordinary in every detail that it should never have to be considered a payment for benefits past due. Moore shows us acting at its best, alive with ferocity and feeling and committed to truth.
Moore’s Alice Howland is an expert in her field. She juggles being a wife to John (Alec Baldwin), a biologist, and mother to their three adult children, played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and a wonderfully vibrant and contentious Kristen Stewart. The family reacts in various ways to Alice’s worsening condition, with the rebel daughter – a wanna-be actress who disdains family – becoming her willing caretaker. Even when Still Alice sometimes slips into sentiment, Moore and Stewart are funny, fierce and glorious.
The film, like the book by neuroscientist Lisa Genova that inspired it, isn’t really about other people. The focus is on Alice. It’s through her head and heart that we see the world. The effect is devastating, but not hopeless. Moore reveals a woman who doesn’t yet know what comes with the dying of the light in her eyes. She can guess from her children’s fear that they might inherit her disease, from her husband’s decision to take a job in another state, from her own decision to record a message to her diminished self that would trick that later self into suicide.
Admirably, the film refuses to hold Alice at a distance, as a specimen. That we feel with Alice and through her owes much to the commitment of two men behind the camera. They are Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera), who wrote and directed Still Alice while Glatzer coped with the debilitating effects of ALS, a disease that attacks the body as relentlessly as Alzheimer’s attacks the mind. Glatzer and Westmoreland, who married in 2013, clearly have a personal stake in the story being told, a stake we come to share. Still Alice, propelled by the blazing artistry of Moore’s performance, is an emotional powerhouse. It will get to you.