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12 Feb 2015

An Amazing Performance: Julianne Moore Deserves the Oscar for Her Turn as an Alzheimer's-Stricken Professor in 'Still Alice'

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Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Julianne Moore in Still Alice.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease steals the mind of a very smart woman in Still Alice, a movie that is sure to garner Julianne Moore her first Academy Award.

In this film—which was one of the most talked-about features at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival—Moore plays Alice, a professor at Columbia University who leads an organized life of lectures, dinner parties and runs in the park. After starting to forget words here and there, and losing her place in lectures, Alice gets lost during a routine jog and can’t find her way home. She begins to realize that these aren’t normal memory-loss problems for a 50-year-old woman.

At first, Alice thinks she has a brain tumor. But memory tests suggest to her neurologist (Stephen Kunken) that something else could be causing her difficulties. A series of brain scans reveals the ugly truth: Alice has Alzheimer’s.

Alice, husband John (Alec Baldwin) and her children are horrified to discover their matriarch, a brilliant woman, will rapidly lose her memory, her sense of self and her ability to recognize her own children. Making matters worse, she has a rare strain of Alzheimer’s that is familial, meaning there’s a good chance she has passed the possibility of the disease to her three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

This is not a fun movie to watch, but it is a remarkable film: Moore and the entire cast take this way above your average disease-of-the-week movie. Moore is one of our very best actresses, and she makes Alice into a palpable representation of this horrible disease.

The script, based on a novel by Lisa Genova and written by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, avoids most of the melodrama that tends to mar films about illness. They present a very real family going through total devastation—all while handling the process with dignity, class and love for Alice. It’s very moving.

The much-maligned and highly underrated Kristen Stewart may be the supporting cast standout as the youngest daughter, who is trying to make it as an actress. Alice wants her to attend college, but Lydia steadfastly refuses—and the argument becomes very awkward when Alice becomes ill. Stewart is spot-on in her portrayal of a young woman determined to follow her dreams, yet driven by the need to help her mother.

Baldwin takes a very quiet approach to the role of John, turning in a subtle performance that reminds us that he’s a great dramatic actor. John still feels the need to protect and provide for his family, even if that takes him away from Alice for a new opportunity. It creates one of the film’s central conflicts; John’s decisions create a subject for debate among those who see the movie. Moore and Baldwin have great scenes together, especially the one in which Alice reveals her illness to her children. Baldwin’s reactions to her wife’s progressive memory loss are painful to watch.

Moore gives us a deep, fully realized, multi-dimensional performance that never feels trite. Alice is a woman who prides herself on her encyclopedic knowledge base for teaching, and exhibits nothing but grace as that knowledge is rapidly stripped away. Credit Moore for making every step of Alice’s tribulations seem honest and credible.

Moore should get her first Academy Award with her fifth nomination, and she very much deserves it. There were some great performances this year (especially Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Reese Witherspoon for Wild), but Moore outshines the class. It’s Oscar time for Moore.

Still Aliceis now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (760-836-1940).

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