Still Alice is practically an afterthought at this point, and will likely only be remembered as the film that finally brought Julianne Moore her first Oscar (she won as Best Actress earlier this year) after a number of nominations. And while Moore is certainly the bright light shining atop this structure (I’m thinking the introduction to All About Eve here), there are a few other performances worth noting as well.
The subject of the film is perhaps the second biggest star after Ms. Moore, who plays a Columbia University professor suffering with the early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The subject is fraught with emotional weight, as well as social and scientific significance. It might have become “that film” that raised awareness and instigated a social discussion of the disease, joining The Snake Pit, Philadelphia and The Lost Weekend as “issue films” that functioned as well-made films as well as conversation starters. Yet like The Theory of Everything, Away from Her, Dallas Buyers Club, and even The Pride of the Yankees, the strength of its central performance distracts from the issue or disease at hand (and with The Theory of Everything as well as The Pride of the Yankees, the other big distraction from ALS as a disease is who is suffering from it).
Here is the central sufferer isn’t famous, but does live in a relatively rarified world of comfortable New York City brownstones in New York and vacation homes. It’s as focused and limited a world as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which presents a similar narrow world. The difference is that in spite of the “small world” in which that film’s inhabitants lived and loved, the central struggles of its main characters were universally shared or understood. Not so in Still Alice, which focuses keenly on its central character and the effects of the disease on her and her family. We’re barely made aware of others who suffer from the same disease, and only as it supports the central struggle.
The film itself is relatively straightforward and direct, fairly well constructed, and could be described as lean and mean. It’s a better film than you might think if you’re only used to what used to be called “disease of the week” films on television. But other than causing some slight discomfort on the part of viewers to whom the disease is a reality or a fear, the film itself is easy to let slip from the memory (no other meaning implied).
What is provides best is a platform for performances, especially the central award-winning one. Julianne Moore is almost a hyper-realistic actress, and when she finds a good character fit (e.g., Children of Men, Far From Heaven, The End of the Affair), her performances elevate and energize her films. When the first isn’t so good (the Hunger Games films, Nine Months), she tends to either stick out of her films or shift into another dimension that only has a tangential relationship with the other actors or the film itself). Here, she has the perfect fit between character and her talents. Like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, this is a highly technical acting challenge as well as an emotional one. Moore, like those other actors, hits every technical and emotional note purely and cleanly. She never works for sympathy, and gains it in the process. It’s the perfect connection of actor and role, and she makes the most of it.
What is perhaps surprising is the quality of the supporting work. Alec Baldwin has almost become something of a joke for his boorish off-the-set behavior, and it seemed as if his years as a TV star had perhaps robbed his ability to fully inhabit a role without bringing his mannerisms into the performance (e.g., Blue Jasmine). Here, however, he reminds us that he can be an actor of the first rank with a restrained, mannerism-free performance as Moore’s character’s husband, who is torn with his own challenges at work and at home as her disease progresses. It’s a refreshing, real and straightforward performance that gives one hope that we still have a first-rate actor here.
Some ink has been spilt—and it’s flowed in one of two opposite directions—about Kristin Stewart’s performance as Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is occasionally pouty, negative and attitudinal, and evokes Stewart’s most famous role to date in the Twilight series. Yes, she is giving a contained performance, but as the film continues, we see shades we aren’t used to seeing and undertones that work well for the character. Going toe-to-toe with an actress like Moore at the height of her powers, and coming out her equal is quite the triumph. This isn’t the actress of Twilight, in spite of the similarities of its pouty characters. If rumor is true and this is Stewart’s breakout year as an actress instead of just being a star, this may well be the first film pointed to. Lastly, Kate Bosworth heretofore known more for her beauty than her acting talent, gives a solid performance as Alice’s other (and married) daughter—a small role, but an important one to the film’s structure. She’s a counterpoint to Lydia and is someone who is affected, but less so, than the closer family members, allowing us one perspective on the affects of this disease on others.
In spite of its electric and often poignant topic, Still Alice is a film that will ultimately be remembered as a showcase, primarily for Moore. We’ve been waiting for that showcase for years, and Hollywood was grateful to find an opportunity to give her what some feel is a long-overdue Oscar. It could have been deeply affecting, and it even strives for some kind of resonance in its final scenes. But ultimately, it’s a small but solid film with a good supporting cast and a classic central performance. That’s not bad, but it could have been so much more.