Back in December, when Still Alice was released, I described Julianne Moore’s performance as “so profound and simple, so devoid of sentimentality or actressy self-regard, that it almost seems obscene to mention the word Oscar.” In an example of the bipolarity awards season is capable of generating, I then went on to declare my alliance with “Team Julianne.”
A few months later, Team Julianne has prevailed. I hope Moore’s win encourages more people to see Still Alice, a simple, truthfully told story about a painful subject whose resonance in the lives of the filmmakers (a married couple coping with one partner’s degenerative illness) is palpable in their film’s refusal to either sugarcoat the disease’s effects or play them for easy pathos. But mostly Moore’s Oscar victory makes me happy because it’s a chance to take a moment and appreciate the quiet miracle that is Julianne Moore. Moore has been so good, for so long, in such a variety of better-than-average movies—is there any other A-list actress who’s chosen her roles with such consistently excellent taste, or collaborated with as many ambitious young directors?—that it’s easy to take for granted her steady presence in some of the best American cinema of the past two decades. Now that, after five nominations, that prestige-conferring hunk of gold finally vindicates what her viewers have seen all along, let’s take a moment to reflect on the glorious career of one of America’s smartest, bravest, and most self-effacingly brilliant actresses.
It’s easy to forget how long Moore took to break into film in the first place. After studying theater at Boston University, Moore spent the rest of the 1980s working in television—most notably on the daytime soap As the World Turns, where she spent three years in the dual role of good-and-evil half sisters Frannie and Sabrina Hughes.* Unsurprisingly, Moore excelled in that milieu, winning a Daytime Emmy in 1988. In her acceptance speech at the SAG Awards this year, Moore remembered that early role with affection, while admitting that “it was super-boring to act by myself.”
Assessing the acting in a decades-old daytime soap is like attempting to analyze a Noh theater performance as a nonspeaker of ancient Japanese. But watching this exchange between an impossibly young Moore and Steven Weber (later of Wings fame) confirms at least two facts: 1) She’s awful purdy; 2) the pokiness of soap-opera pacing, if nothing else, gives the actors a lot of camera time during which to find something to do. I don’t know what was happening for Frannie in this scene, but there’s a whole lot going on in Moore’s face.
In the early ’90s, Moore began to make a mark in supporting film roles. In Robert Altman’s sprawling 1993 opus Short Cuts, she effortlessly pulls off a very tricky scene in which her character, naked from the waist down, is coerced into confessing a past infidelity by her angry, taunting husband (Matthew Modine)—cementing Moore’s bona fides as both an actress to watch and a natural redhead. The banally nonsexual pretext for Moore’s character’s bottomlessness in this scene—she’s simply spilled something on her skirt before a party and is attempting to blow it dry—only serves to increase her husband’s sense that he’s being deliberately taunted.
Moore was 35 before she landed her first leading role in a feature film, playing a chemically sensitive California housewife who withdraws into a world of germ-free isolation in Todd Haynes’ eerie, brilliant Safe (1995.) Haynes and Moore are well-matched artists in many ways: at once cerebral and emotionally expansive, and drawn to formally ambitious projects that explore extreme inner states as well as broader social problems. (The two would work together again in the 2002 Douglas Sirk pastiche Far From Heaven, a film Haynes wrote with Moore in mind.) In the scene below, from Safe, Moore’s Carol, having traded her chilly marriage and bourgeois creature comforts for an ascetic life in a cultlike desert compound headed up by an ethically dubious guru, gives a speech to thank her fellow acolytes (or inmates) for the birthday party they’ve thrown her. Even as Carol tries to extol the spiritual progress she’s made at the center, her inner confusion and barely controlled panic can’t stop bobbing to the surface, and soon her speech, a string of half-remembered New Age platitudes, devolves into stammered nonsense. An awkward social moment for Carol, yes, but also a trenchant jab at the American propensity to subsume our identities into the first utopian ideology that comes along—not to mention a chance for Moore to deliver a tremendously layered and compassionate piece of screen acting.
Another key moment in Still Alice involves a highly charged incident of public speaking. As she’s still in the relatively early stages of cognitive decline, Moore’s character is invited to address an Alzheimer’s group about her experience with the disease and insists on preparing a talk consistent with her old linguistics-professor standards of methodological rigor. Her pride in the warm reception her speech receives serves as the film’s valedictory salute to its disappearing heroine (though as the title makes clear, Alice never really vanishes). Watching Moore give her gracious, warm, and almost-unrehearsed-sounding acceptance speech at the Oscars, I couldn’t help but remember Alice’s painstakingly worded address to that Alzheimers’ conference, and be grateful that the actress who plays her still has so many years ahead working at the full force of her powers.
Moore wasn’t only at home playing fragile or damaged heroines; think one of her best comic roles, the avant-garde artist Maude in the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult favorite The Big Lebowski. From the moment of Maude’s grand entrance, Moore coolly unpacks a heretofore unsuspected set of actorly tools from her kit: an achingly posh mid-Atlantic accent, a screwball-worthy sense of comic timing, and a resting bitch face surpassed only by Cruella de Vil’s.
In Magnolia (1999), she worked again with Paul Thomas Anderson and got to deliver one of the quasi-operatic arias this very musical filmmaker specializes in writing for his characters. Moore’s character goes to a pharmacy to fulfill her dying husband’s prescriptions, which include one for morphine. When the pharmacist quizzes her a little too insistently about her plans for this Class IV narcotic, she flies off the handle, allowing Moore the chance to play another of those multivalent moments where the intense emotion we’re so convinced we’re witnessing—in this case, defensive rage—is only a mask over the deeper feelings beneath—in this case, guilt and grief.
There are so many Moore characters I could adduce as evidence of the formidable sensitivity and range of this human Stradivarius of an actress. The lesbian mom in The Kids Are All Right who—shunned by her family after having an affair with, of all people, her kids’ sperm donor—delivers a shamefaced soliloquy on the radical difficulty of marriage. The neurotic fading movie star Moore plays in the upcoming David Cronenberg satire Maps to the Stars, who seduces her limo driver (Robert Pattinson) for no other reason than to reassure herself that, like the queen in Snow White, she still might be fairest of them all. Or even Moore’s mentally declining professor in Still Alice, who in the scene below confides in the youngest and least judgmental of her grown children (Kristen Stewart) about what it’s like to feel your once-dazzling vocabulary slip away day after day. We can sense Alice trying to protect her daughter from the worst of her fears for the future, while also reveling in the rare invitation to express them without equivocation or shame. And when Alice pauses, just for an instant, to summon words that would once have come to her easily—“define,” “intellect,” “articulation”—we can take the measure of how much she’s lost already and how hard she’s struggling to hold on to what’s left.
Correction, March, 1, 2015: This article originally misstated that Julianne Moore played twin sisters on As The World Turns. The characters of Frannie and Sabrina were cousins and half-sisters who just happened to have an uncanny resemblance to each other. Frannie was the daughter of Bob Hughes and Jennifer Sullivan; Sabrina was the daughter of Bob and Kim, Jennifer’s sister. Kim had the baby and was told it was stillborn but years later we learned that the baby was indeed alive, raised in England, and named Sabrina. The characters had the same dad but different mothers.