Julianne Moore stands poised to win an Oscar this year for her performance in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s Still Alice, in which she plays a linguistics professor who, in her early fifties, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Like nearly everyone else on the planet, I love Moore and believe her to be long overdue for an Oscar; she is—with Meryl, Kate, Cate, Carey, Viola, and Jessica—one of our finest working actresses. But her win for Still Alice will go down as yet another instance of an extraordinarily talented filmmaker being rewarded for the wrong movie. (See also Kate Winslet and The Reader, Martin Scorsese and The Departed, etc.) Moore’s work in Still Alice is good; at times it is very fine, and at certain moments, playing opposite Alec Baldwin and Kristin Stewart, there are flickers of radiance. She’s severely limited by the weakness of this material, though, which has the superficiality of a People magazine article.
In a perfect world, Moore would already have a mantel’s worth of Oscars for her performances in films like Far from Heaven and The Kids Are All Right, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Vanya on 42nd Street and The Hours. But it’s Moore’s performance in Todd Haynes’ [Safe] that I was thinking about most as I was watching Still Alice. [Safe] is a film that appears to be a disease movie but that actually does subtle violence to the disease movie as a genre. It follows many of the conventions of the genre at the same time that Haynes’ opaque tone interferes with our ability to interpret and respond to it. The opacity of [Safe] works to disable us as viewers, much in the same way that Moore’s character Carol White, an affluent suburban woman, finds herself disabled by an environmental allergy.
That film, and Moore’s performance as Carol, are anything but “safe.” They use the conventions of the disease movie to pose the kinds of troubling and important questions—about disability, identity, health care, class, gender—that aren’t even on Alice’s radar. Where Haynes’ film interrogates the very notion of safety itself, Alice clings to safety like a fetish. It regards its subject matter from a careful distance and coats it with a commercial gloss. (In its shots of well-groomed people sitting around Thanksgiving tables and walking on beaches, it frequently looks like a commercial, and when Alice delivers a speech in which she says “…but there’s hope for a cure!”, it basically becomes one for Alzheimer's research.) There’s an emotional cheapness to this film for which even Moore, brilliant as she may be to watch, can’t completely make up. When she wins the Oscar February 22 I’ll be cheering—not for her Alice, but for her Carol White and her Cathy Whittaker and her Amber Waves, and for the other truly un-safe performances out of which she has made a career.