Julianne Moore in Still Alice: "I had an incredible obligation to get this right."
When Julianne Moore walks to the stage Feb. 22 to accept her Best Actress Oscar--I promise you she's a lock to win--she'll thank the many people who helped her create the definitive character of her career and the centerpiece of Still Alice, Dr. Alice Howland. Unfortunately, a good number of those people Moore will thank won't remember who she is or why she's so emotionally attached to them.
"I spoke to so many people in my preparation for this film," Moore told Boise Weekly in September 2014 at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I spent time in support groups and long-term support facilities, but mostly I listened to people who were at all levels of Alzheimer's. Some had just been diagnosed. Some had for a little while. I will be forever grateful to everyone I met."
BW sat down with Moore just after the world premiere of Still Alice at TIFF. Oddly enough, the pre-festival buzz had been swirling around Moore's performance in Maps to the Stars, another festival entry. Seconds after the lights came up following the Still Alice screening, the audience had made its choice: This was the Julianne Moore film to see, and it's the best work she's ever done in an already great career.
"I had such an incredible obligation to get this right," said Moore. "Everything you saw in this film is something that I had observed. If I hadn't witnessed the behavior in Alzheimer's patients that I had met, I didn't want to perform it. That was really, really important to me."
Moore plays Alice, a Columbia University linguistics professor who has it all: a devoted husband (Alec Baldwin in his best big-screen role in years) and three loving children (Kristen Stewart, who is particularly great; Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). One day, mid-sentence during a lecture, Alice loses a key word and waits awkwardly until something comes to her. Thus begins Alice's journey and the finest film to date about Alzheimer's.
"Richard [Glatzer] and I talked a lot about my performance, every day," said Moore.
As they did with 2006's acclaimed Quinceanera, Glatzer and his partner, Wash Westmoreland, co-authored and co-directed Still Alice, and Glatzer's own story is as compelling as Alice's. The same year he was presented with Lisa Genova's titular novel for a possible screen adaptation of Still Alice, Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. As he began crafting what would become the Still Alice screenplay, Glatzer was gradually losing his ability to speak and as he approached the daunting task of co-directing the movie alongside Westmoreland, it was time for the duo to think about casting their film.
"Who do you think could do this?" Westmoreland recalled asking his partner.
"Julianne Moore," typed Glatzer on his iPad. That same day, the duo sent a message to Moore about her possibly playing Alice. Days later, she contacted Glatzer and Westmoreland, via Skype: "I'm in," she said.
Months later, Glatzer was on-set, co-directing on location during a brutal New York City winter every day, despite his own incredible physical difficulties.
"Richard brought a lot of his personal experience into the writing and co-directing of Still Alice. His presence infused the whole production with a sense of deeper purpose. In essence, this was what the movie was about," Westmoreland told BW in Toronto. "He would give anything to be here for the premiere. I should tell you that at the time of the film, he could no longer feed or dress himself and could type only at certain angles with one finger; but there he was, directing with one finger triggering some voice recognition software, giving direction to the cast, and it added everything to the film and Julianne's performance."
In July 2011, BW spent some time with Dr. Troy Rohn at his laboratory on the campus of Boise State University. That's where Rohn is trying to unlock the key to Alzheimer's and his effort to craft an Idaho-centric plan to deal with what he called an epidemic.
"Right now, there are between 26,000 and 32,000 people in Idaho that are diagnosed with Alzheimer's," Rohn told BW, estimating that Idahoans with Alzheimer's would fill Boise State's Albertsons Stadium, and that number would double within 14 years. Rohn told BW that Idaho's death rate from Alzheimer's is one of the highest in the nation, and Idaho is projected to soon have the fifth-highest increase in Alzheimer's patients among all states.
I admit to some skepticism as I first approached Still Alice. I was expecting an earnest but sentimental disease-of-the-week offering. With Moore's breathtaking performance, however, I was embraced and ultimately swept away by one of the best films of the year.
"Everything in the movie supports Julianne's performance, because it's all about Alice," said Westmoreland. "The costumes, the beautiful score, this amazing supporting cast, even the camera lens which, if you noticed, ever-so gently was unfocused at times—they all supported Julianne in our effort to get inside Alice's head."
Where the film truly succeeds is inside your heart. Take some tissues to this one because there will be tears. If my guess is right, you'll instantly recognize Alice. Perhaps she's your daughter, your wife, your friend. One thing is certain: you'll never forget her.