Losing her mind, finding her essence

Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Julianne Moore in Still Alice

For all the eminently justifiable hand-wringing about the persistent disproportionately low number of toothsome Hollywood roles for women, one can’t help noticing that some years seem to be especially juicy ones for male film stars and others for the distaff side. And with Oscar time upon us, it’s tough not to conclude that 2014 was one for the lads. It’s easy to come up with half a dozen worthy contenders for a Best Actor award in addition to the ones actually nominated (I’m pulling for Cumberbatch personally, but would put my money on Redmayne). Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man, David Oyelowo in Selma, Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins, Ethan Hawke in Boyhood and Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again all knocked this reviewer’s socks off, but the Academy only saves five slots at the top.

The pickings for women in 2014 were definitely leaner, and coming up with my top five would take some deep cogitating. But I’m jumping both feet forward into the ranks of those who believe that it will be a great injustice if Julianne Moore does not win Best Actress for her excruciating-but-luminous turn as a Columbia University professor sliding into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. It’s the sort of role that requires the fanciest of thespian footwork not to turn mawkish, and Moore absolutely knocks it out of the park.

Much of the credit must also go to co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who adapted the screenplay from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel. The pair, who are a married couple in real life, picked up the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance in 2006 for Quinceañera, but have hitherto been relatively unknown quantities outside the indie circuit. That time is indubitably over, as Still Alice has made such a powerful impression on audiences wherever it opens.

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This is one of those movies where word-of-mouth is all-important, since the premise strikes one at first as likely too depressing to exert immediate appeal. It’s an almost unbearably close examination of a brilliant, high-powered 50-year-old professional woman’s inexorable loss of mental function as her disease swiftly progresses, structured like the inverse of home movies of a growing infant via such milestones as the first time she gropes for a word while lecturing, the first time she forgets that her sister is no longer living, the first time she puts the shampoo in the refrigerator, the first time she doesn’t immediately recognize one of her own children.

Sound grim, fatalistic, no fun to watch? There you would be wrong. Still Alice is actually a profoundly moving, uplifting movie, directed with the lightest and deftest touch imaginable, propelled by cinematography that creates a consistently perfect visual tone without calling undue attention to itself and acted by a splendid cast without the slightest taint of melodrama. Even Kristen Stewart impressively transcends her reputation as…well, not much of an actress as she portrays Lydia, Dr. Alice Howland’s argumentative youngest daughter, whose apparent fecklessness belies a strong will and sound basic family instincts.

Alec Baldwin seriously steps up his game as the protagonist’s conflicted medical researcher husband John in Still Alice. One might quibble that this story glosses over the realities of degenerative disease for people who lack the financial resources (including a lovely beach house) and resilient support system of the Howland family, but Baldwin’s character goes a long way toward conveying how even that network frays at the seams over time. His bewilderment and frustration as his obviously much-loved wife, once as hard-driven professionally as he is, becomes less and less capable and forced to live more and more for the small joys of the moment, are a wonder to behold. The conflict between John’s need to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at the Mayo Clinic and his devotion to his wife’s needs supplies an essential exterior foil against which Alice’s increasingly interior journey is illuminated.

But ultimately, Julianne Moore is the reason to see this movie. It’s the role of a lifetime, and she nails it, scene by scene, nakedly delivering a woman who loses her sense of self, the intellect, language and memories that she cherishes, only to find the same person at her core whom she always was, distilled down to her most basic emotional truth. If you’ve ever experienced an aging parent slipping through your fingers, or if you merely expect to have to contend with mental losses in your own old age, then you need to see Still Alice. It will help give you the heart to go on.

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