MOVIES

Oscars 2015: Julianne Moore and the art of effortlessness

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
In 'Still Alice,' Julianne Moore makes Alice's descent into Alzheimer's both harrowing and hopeful

As beautiful as Julianne Moore is, that cascading red hair, those flashing green eyes, that killer smile, there is an earthiness and an edginess about the actress and her performances that define the woman she is and the women she becomes on-screen. Hard work forges her way, with an emotional openness ever apparent.

That sensitivity and sensibility was on display Sunday night as she won the lead actress Oscar for "Still Alice."

Standing onstage, that smile impossible to contain, the Oscar gripped as if she would never let it go, Moore spoke of gratitude for this moment so she could "thank the people I love," for her acting peers, for the gift of parents who believed in her, for the courage of her directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, their love of movie making and carrying on despite the ALS that cripples Glatzer.

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No notes. All heart. She made the moment completely hers.

Her essential core, an equal measure of resilience and vulnerability, is in "Still Alice's" linguistics professor. The actress, 54, makes Alice's descent into the throes of Alzheimer's both harrowing and hopeful. It makes this star, an Oscar winner after countless indelible performances and four earlier nominations, seem approachable, believable, real.

In talking about the craft and how she approaches it, Moore tends to speak of specificity, finding the precise details that define each character she portrays. Her talent at doing just that was certainly tested by "Still Alice." Yet she made the woman, the disease and its siege so gripping that it was impossible not to be swept up.

But what did the sweeping? If you deconstruct that performance — and I'm sure at some point it will become part of the acting curriculum at colleges — the specifics of Alice's decline are so subtly traced by Moore that the list of remarkable moments gets longer each time you see the movie.

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It is those shadings that make this particular performance so noteworthy, Oscar worthy. The thin line of cognition between one day in Alice's life and another provides a textbook case of the art of performance and the progression of Alzheimer's.

Consider a scene about midway through the film. Alice has mistakenly picked up and read the diary of her youngest daughter, Lydia, a fact she's trying to conceal, while using what she's learned from those pages to have a conversation with Lydia (played with a great deal of empathy by Kristen Stewart). What you see is a mother trying to relate to this child of hers, whose ambition to act she doesn't understand, but more devastating, a mother increasingly forgetting who that child even is. Not long after, she does forget. Aware enough in talking to the young actress backstage to know she should remember this person, but the memory lost nevertheless.

Alice is an easy character for moviegoers to care about. Many of the roles Moore chooses are not at first glance so lovable. But the actress' gift is in drawing us in either way: The porn star and quasi-mother hen of the young actors in the erotic movie business in "Boogie Nights," which earned the actress her first Oscar nomination in 1998. The trophy wife of a dying man in "Magnolia," Paul Thomas Anderson's wrenching work on emotional decay. The cheating wife whose demand for a divorce throws Steve Carell's middle-aged man into such a state in "Crazy, Stupid, Love."

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Whether they are good or bad, women in crises are one of Moore's specialties. Many of the circumstances are emotionally bleak, like Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," which earned the actress one of two Oscar nominations she would get in 2003 (the other for an equally troubled portrait in "The Hours"). As a posh suburban wife who discovers that her husband is gay, she begins falling for her gardener's grown son, a magnetic Dennis Haysbert. Moore drenches the woman with a sadness so deep it breaks your heart. A completely different sort of sadness infuses her character in Neil Jordan's remake of that classic war-time romance "The End of the Affair," also Oscar-nominated.

In the HBO TV movie "Game Change," Moore achieved the impossible. She somehow managed to become Sarah Palin — despite Palin's very provocative presence so etched in the public consciousness as the last-minute choice for vice president on John McCain's 2008 presidential ticket, and despite the dead-on parody that Tina Fey made so hysterical during the campaign. Accolades showered this performance as well.

Though Moore's win for "Still Alice" is much deserved, the role that remains my favorite is as one-half of the lesbian couple in "The Kids Are All Right." The film received four Oscar nominations in 2011 — best picture and screenplay, with the remaining two going to her partners in crime: Annette Bening as her uptight spouse and Mark Ruffalo as the sperm donor dad of their kids.

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As Jules, a quasi-landscape architect, everything about the character Moore created is ripe, bursting with flavor. The actress tackled Jules with such brash brio, including her unexpected fling with sperm donor dad, nothing is held back — from emotions to clothes.

Directors certainly want Moore. And she returns the favor, saying "yes" so often that it is hard to keep up with the roles she takes, particularly since the actress makes time for small films, and small roles in projects of all sizes.

Which is why I suspect that in the coming weeks after her Oscar win, she'll be back in the trenches, putting in the same long hours on yet another character in yet another film. Still Julianne Moore. More than enough.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey

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