JULIANNE MOORE has made a specialty of suffering in silence, her pale skin pulling tight across her cheekbones to form a flawless mask, a shell of perfect beauty concealing a soul in deepest turmoil. Only in private moments, when no one but the audience is watching, do the cracks begin to show.
In her new film, “Savage Grace,” which opened Friday in limited release, the mask doesn’t crack so much as shatter. Moore plays Barbara Baekeland, a onetime actress who married the heir to the Bakelite plastic fortune. Her every gesture governed by calculation, Barbara is capable of playing the perfect high-society hostess. But when she feels threatened, the facade drops in an instant, revealing the raw and uncontrollable fury beneath.
Invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907, Bakelite was the first industrial plastic, used in a variety of products, including costume jewelry and land mines, and it made its inventor a wealthy man. But the idleness that came with inherited wealth took its toll on subsequent generations, including Baekeland’s grandson, Brooks, Barbara’s husband.
Set in Paris, London and Catalonia, “Savage Grace” basks in the perfume of postwar decadence, but underneath is the sour smell of moral rot. “For all of us, there are boundaries in the way we behave with each other,” Moore said, chewing the ice from her diet soda a few blocks from the West Village apartment she shares with her husband, director Bart Freundlich, and their two children. “The thing that was so shocking to me was that they just didn’t abide by any of them, ever.” She laughs. “Ever!”
Drawn from Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson’s oral history of the Baekelands’ downfall, the movie focuses on Barbara’s convoluted and eventually grotesque relationship with her son, Tony, played from adolescence on by British actor Eddie Redmayne. As Barbara’s marriage to Brooks Baekeland faltered, she came increasingly to rely on her son for emotional, and eventually physical, solace. In 1972, some time after their relationship had become incestuous, Tony drove a kitchen knife through his mother’s heart in the kitchen of their London flat. He later killed himself in prison.
‘Violence and elegance’
MOORE, 47, got her earliest recognition for her role as Frannie Hughes on the soap opera “As the World Turns,” but it wasn’t until her early 30s that she began to make a mark in film, most forcefully by playing a marital spat in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” naked from the waist down.
Barbara Baekeland is the latest in a long line of elegantly tortured women of privilege portrayed by Moore, running from 1995’s “Safe” through 2002’s “The Hours” and “Far From Heaven,” both of which garnered her Oscar nominations.
Although Moore points out that she has played her share of lighthearted characters, singling out the Viking helmet-wearing Fluxus artist from “The Big Lebowski,” her signature roles are women stifled by social conventions.
As Barbara, Moore epitomizes what “Savage Grace” director Tom Kalin calls “the collision between violence and elegance.” Barbara’s every action is governed by propriety, but she is far more volatile than most of Moore’s long-suffering housewives, her emotions whipsawing like power lines in a windstorm.
“I haven’t played somebody who can self-destruct like that before,” she said. “She was so emotional, all this need, this desire to be seen, and to be loved. It was a messy kind of emotion, and that intrigued me.”
Obsessed with upward mobility, Barbara’s life is a constant performance, ironically fulfilling her claim that she was “almost a movie star.” But on rare occasions, Moore lets Barbara’s self-awareness slip, so we see the actress behind the role. When she catches her husband at the airport with another woman, Barbara makes a scene of royal proportions, neatly cutting him down to size. Only once does Moore let her sorrow show, emotion flooding her face as she walks slowly toward the camera. For a movie that could have come off as a chilly technical exercise, Moore’s ability to pack immense feeling into a few fleeting instances is critical. “In those little turnings, in those silent moments of performance, she has great empathy, great humanity,” Kalin says.
Meaning in tiny gestures
LIKE “Savage Grace,” which premiered at Cannes in 2007, Moore’s recent “Blindness” polarized the crowds at this year’s festival. The first wave of U.S. press was largely dismissive of Fernando Meirelles’ dystopian allegory, set in a world where everyone except Moore’s character has suddenly lost the power of sight, labeling it ponderous and heavy-handed (European critics were significantly more enthusiastic). But Moore says Meirelles is adept at leavening the film’s weightier aspects with powerful flickers of human feeling. “The thing he does that I think is so spectacular is that he paints with this big brush,” she says. “There’s a lot of camera movement, and everything is very emotional, very universal, and then he’ll key in on a moment where he’ll play somebody’s eyes, and that will be the action in the frame. One person touching another: That tiny gesture is meaningful to him. I find it very, very moving.”
Moore prefers to work with “strong directors” who can give her a sense of how she stands in the frame, a group that includes Robert Altman, Louis Malle, Todd Haynes and Paul Thomas Anderson.
“I didn’t grow up thinking I was a particularly visual person,” she says. “I don’t draw or anything. But the older I’ve gotten, the more visual I’ve realized that I am. I really need to know what the frame is. I want to see the picture so I know where to stand in the picture.”
On set, Moore works closely with the cinematographer and camera operator, studying storyboards and sometimes asking for a sense of how the scene might be edited, all to get a sense of how her work fits into the grander scheme. Balancing technique and raw emotion is a process she finds more exhilarating than cumbersome.
“One of the most exciting things about filmmaking is the technical limitations,” she says, “knowing that I have to come up with a performance within a technical box. It’s not just about, ‘Well I got it, now you should get it.’ A performance in a vacuum is nothing. It only exists in a movie.”