In chatting with Julianne Moore for her (now Oscar-winning) turn in the drama "Still Alice" a little while ago, I’d asked what it was like to star in that film so close to the Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars.” The two pieces, after all, are about as tonally different as you could imagine.
After acknowledging the distinction, Moore noted that the films may be more alike than you'd think.
“I like playing women who are dealing with their circumstances, especially if those stories are about families and relationships," she said. “And these are both family stories."
It’s interesting to see “Maps” in this light. As Moore’s latest movie hit theaters this past weekend, the film has been perceived by many as another notch on a diverse resume, the kind of role that makes the actress’ career so entertaining to watch. (She also, improbably, has had parts in a “Hunger Games” movie and the genre campfest “The Seventh Son" in the last four months.)
“Maps,” directed by David Cronenberg from a script by Hollywood flamethrower Bruce Wagner, finds Moore playing Havana Segrand, a whiny has-been actress who’s haunted, in more ways than one, by her mother, and trying to claim glory by crassly taking on the same part her mother made famous, now in a remake. So odious is Havana's path to this goal that when she hears of a terrible tragedy her first reaction is to ask what it means for the casting implications. "Maps" is a seeming world away from the Alzheimer’s-afflicted linguistics professor that earned Moore the golden statuette a week ago.
But far from seeing “Maps” and “Alice” as mere signs of eclecticism, it’s interesting to see them as Moore in a sense does: as proximate spaces on a continuum.
In each film, Moore’s character is felled by large circumstances outside her control. And in each, she -- really, Moore -- betrays an underlying vulnerability. It may come under a coating of self-involved loathsomeness in “Maps” or a can-do grimace in “Alice,” but both parts persuasively convey the cracking behind a strong front.
Sure, the former is acutely self-aware; the latter couldn’t tell you the first thing about her unhappy self, or her own role in that unhappiness. But there’s something about the mix of bathos and strength -- an attempt at resolve in the face of daunting circumstances -- that makes the parts equals.
In fact, far from being the lesser role, you could argue that “Maps” in the braver one. Playing an “Alice”-style victim isn’t easy -- there are pitfalls galore -- but ultimately your mandate is clear: win over the audience. Playing the woman the audiences hates, as Moore does in “Maps,” is much trickier. We don’t even love to hate Havana in the manner of a juicy villain. We just plain hate her. And yet there's something so recognizable in her flaws that we also can't tear ourselves away.
The Golden Globes seemed to recognize the way these roles line up, nominating Moore for each this year. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Moore landed Oscar acclaim for the wrong role (that honor would go to “The Immigrant” and "Two Days, One Night" star Marion Cotillard) but if she had been nominated for “Maps” instead of “Alice” I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye.
Asked to characterize the Havana role in "Maps," Moore replied, “It’s the daughter of a famous actor, and all she wants is to be as famous as her mother -- all she wants is a mother.” Not many actors would sense the humanity underneath someone so distasteful. Even fewer would find a way to demonstrate it.