Still Alice

February 7, 2015
Julianne Moore in 'Still Alice' (2014)
Julianne Moore in 'Still Alice' (2014)

“Less is Moore” should be one famous actor’s motto for this year. It’s said that Emmanuelle Riva’s career suffered because she was too selective about the roles she chose to play, but Julianne Moore should start being a little more choosy. We have just seen her in the most recent installment of The Hunger Games, and in David Cronenberg’s hideous film about Hollywood, Maps to the Stars. Soon she’ll be appearing in a piece of ‘sword & sorcery’ trash called Seventh Son.

There is one compelling reason for good actors to appear in formulaic action and fantasy films – money. It’s a reason we can all respect, but in the long run it has a tendency to take the edge off one’s reputation – to cheapen the brand, so to speak.

Moore’s performance in Still Alice provides compensation for those less challenging roles. In this film about a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, she is rarely off-camera. For much of the time we are focused intently on her face, which goes through a complete catalogue of nuances as she gets the first intimations of her condition; tries to be resolute; gives way to despair; and gradually succumbs to the debilitating effects of the disease.

This is a film in which Moore is the leading light and the other actors no more than satellites. She plays Alice Howland, a world authority on linguistics, at the very peak of an academic career. Her husband, John, (Alec Baldwin) is a hard-working biologist. Of their three children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), is a lawyer preparing to give birth to twins; Tom (Hunter Parrish), is a trainee doctor. Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is the black sheep, living in Los Angeles trying to be an actor.

The Howlands provide a portrait of a happy, upper middle-class family, making the tragedy that afflicts Alice seem exceptionally cruel. The story is not presented as a tear-jerker but a gradual acclimatisation to fate, as Alice works through the consequences of an illness that begins as mild forgetfulness but will escalate into a complete cerebral meltdown. She has to inform her husband and then her children, giving them the news that the disease is probably hereditary. She grows muddled in lectures and has to wind-up her career at Columbia University. Little by little she becomes an invalid who finds it hard to remember the names of her own kids.

The film is a tragedy in the truest sense because Alice’s doom is sealed as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed. There is no suspense, no thought of a miracle cure. For the audience all that remains is a close study of her decline and the effect it has on the family. The one positive is that Lydia rises to the occasion, being the sole family member willing to take on the responsibility of caring for Alice. It’s an unusually muted role for Kirsten Stewart, as the only other character in the film who has to exert herself dramatically.

For filmmakers, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who are a married couple, the story has a very personal dimension. In 2011 Glatzer was diagnosed with Atrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the condition made famous by Stephen Hawking. The directors could identify with many of the scenarios in the film, as everyday life is upset by a slowly debilitating illness.

A little research shows that Still Alice marks a remarkable transformation in the career of Wash Westmoreland, who in 2001 was directing gay porn videos under the nom de plume, “Bobby Dazzler”. It’s proof that not only is it possible today for directors and actors to begin in the porn industry and move on to the mainstream, it shows they can make films of great sensitivity. There may even be an Oscar in the offing, as Julianne Moore has already won the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, at this year’s Golden Globes.

For portrayals of Alzheimer’s Disease on screen the only other film I could remember was Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), a TV movie by British poet-filmmaker, Tony Harrison and director, Peter Symes. Focusing on three real Alzheimer’s patients in an institution, and their fractured memories, it’s more self-consciously artistic than Still Alice, but also sadder and more affecting. It can be watched on YouTube.

If Alzheimer’s has rarely been treated on film it may be because there is something peculiarly unbearable about the idea of slowly losing your mind while the body remains as an empty shell. The bleakest moment in Glatzer and Westmoreland’s film is when Alice says: “I wish I had cancer.” Perhaps it may be better to leave the world alert and raging against the dying of the light than to be smuggled out under cover of darkness.

Still Alice
Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Written by Richard Glatzner & Wash Westmoreland from a book by Lisa Genova
Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
USA/France, rated M, 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th February, 2015.