When did everyone decide that Julianne Moore was all-but-locked to win the Best Actress Oscar? Roughly two and half months ago, or just after Still Alice, a morose but affecting Lifetime movie about a brilliant college professor suffering from the progressive malice of Alzheimer’s disease, was picked up by Sony Classics out of Toronto on 9.12. But of all the reasons that Moore deserves her big win (and I’m not arguing this in the least — she’ll almost certainly have her Oscar moment on 2.22.15), Still Alice, which I finally saw yesterday, is the least of them.
Moore plays her sad part with delicacy and the depth of feeling that only great actresses seem to fully harness — she’s convincing and then some. But for me, Still Alice is a hellish thing to sit through. It’s a dirge about a kind of death sentence or more precisely a spiritual suffocation, mitigated to some extent by the fact that the condemned (i.e., Moore) is attractive and wealthy and married to a nice man (Alec Baldwin) and surrounded by bright, sensitive family members who care a great deal and can do absolutely nothing to help.
Still Alice is a movie that says “okay, your brain is going to start dying now…okay, the symptoms are getting a little worse now…is the horror of this predicament affecting everyone? Getting worse, still worse…my God, this disease really sucks! And Julianne Moore can’t do anything about it. And neither can you, the viewer. Because we, the filmmakers, have decided that the most sensitive and affecting thing to do is for everyone — Moore, the costars, the audience, Jeffrey Wells sitting on his living room couch — to just ride it out to the end…sadly, gently, compassionately.”
Do you want to watch a film about the drip-drip death of your mind and memory and the winding down of everything that makes life worth living? Do you want to submit to a slow grim slide into the void? I know I’m going to die one day but I’m feeling really great right now so no offense but if I had a choice between watching this movie again and sticking needles in my eyes, I’d be torn.
Award-season bloggers (myself included) decided last September that Moore had won her Best Actress Oscar for three reasons. One, she’s been giving ace-level performances for 20-plus years (or since her big breakthrough in Robert Altman‘s Short Cuts), and at age 54 the time is now and she’s way overdue…period. Two, because she blew everyone away as a fading, desperately unstable middle-aged actress in David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars, but then was screwed out of a Best Actress campaign when the film was acquired by Focus World, which can’t afford the costs. And three, because Sony Classics decided that her performance is affecting enough to justify a Best Actress campaign.
A fourth reason, of course, has kicked in over the last few weeks: Moore has very little strong competition in her field. Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Jones and Shailene Woodley, good as they are in their respective films, don’t seem to have Moore’s aura of inevitability. She pretty much has it in the bag.
But just because Alice is about a dead-serious, real-life affliction and because its co-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, are themselves dealing with the tragic effects of a debilitating illness (ALS) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily profound or award-worthy. Moore, yes. The movie, not so much.
Spoiler paragraph: Still Alice doesn’t just present a doomed-with-no-hope scenario for Moore’s character but — surprise! — one of her children also, and perhaps (who knows?) even a grandchild or two. The film also throws away the one dramatic option that might give the film decisive gravitas. What’s the one option that a person being sucked into an Alzheimer vortex has to control such a situation and stand up for dignity? Who believes that life without a functioning brain or the ability to remember the location of your own bathroom is worth living? Glazer and Westmoreland flirt with this, plot-wise, but in the end they cop out. End of spoiler paragraph.