Earnestness: Glatzer & Westmoreland’s Still Alice
This Is Where We Came In
Pauline Kael wrote, after seeing Shoeshine (1946): “I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?”
A similar experience for me happened when watching Still Alice; a heartwrenching existential play written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. The film ends, I’m in tears (the state of which I had been in sporadically for the last hour), and a couple of women down the aisle from me start babbling to each other. The most egregious of the statements I heard was “Alice Two: The Sequel.” Had we just watched the same film? What had they been sitting through? I had been sitting through one of the most finely shaded tragedies I might ever see; my heart ached with and for the characters while these unaffected cynics were already laughing at the idea of a sequel about a woman with Alzheimer’s, who, by the end of the film, can hardly even speak.
Still Alice is a bright film. It is filled with well-lit interiors, beautiful exteriors. Alice (Julianne Moore) and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) are happily married and have three beautiful children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish). The characters are all well-educated, upper class, and highly esteemed professionally (professors, lawyers, doctors). They eat fine food, drink lots of wine, and talk about the future. Alice herself is a Columbia professor and a renowned linguist. They live in a beautiful home in New York, and have a vacation house on the beach with a beautiful view of the ocean. All of this is a false idyll.
Still Alice is a bleak film. The younger sister Lydia (Kristen Stewart) lives across the country in LA, and is struggling to fulfill herself financially as an actress. She and her mother have a complicated relationship marked by differing ideas of what Lydia should do. Alice’s Alzheimer’s is especially noticeable due to her linguistic background: a studier of words becoming unable to find the words she needs. She faces shame and personal humiliation. The future is dark, uncertain, horrifying. There are many moments of “I’m sorry” and “I’m so sorry,” but they are ultimately useless. Her decline is slow and inevitable, and the directors are not afraid to show it.
Discussions on the long take have been especially popular this year, what with Birdman’s tour-de-force camerawork. But the long take works only if there is something worth showing. Julianne Moore is worth showing. The camera during her first appointment with a neurologist is entirely locked in on her – not a single cut away – as she answers questions, restates memories, expresses doubts and fears. To see how her expression and body shifts in small nuanced actions is to see an actor working at the height of her powers.
Julianne Moore’s finest moments in the film come from blunt statements, such as the first really jarring moment when she states, “I’m worried I have a brain tumor.” It is a rushed statement, without any extra emphasis. Moore makes her a human being: she’s smart. When she is told that it is highly possible she has Alzheimer’s, it is not turned into a dumb, melodramatic shock, but into a quiet, cerebral moment of, Oh my god. A quiet attempt at comprehension.
This is the second film of the year where a parent-daughter relationship is hugely important to the film: first Birdman, and now Still Alice. This is where Kristen Stewart settles the debate, once and for all, that she can act. Frustrated, confident, and hopelessly sensitive, Stewart’s Lydia is a young woman who is struggling (as all the characters are) with the brutal fact that her mother has Alzheimer’s. There’s a scene halfway through the film where she discovers her mother read her journal. She gets angry. The next day, Alice says, “I know we fought yesterday, but I can’t remember about what.” Lydia’s articulation is astounding, as she works about trying to let the matter go, and yet also recognize herself a person meriting privacy. She is more than just a well-drawn character. Because of the intimacy of emotion, she is (like her mother, like her father, like her siblings) a human being.
I brought up before that Alice’s linguistic background pronounces her disease. The directors could have very easily manufactured some irony around the fact that Alice is a linguist and has Alzheimer’s, but they don’t. That would be an easy, cheap thing to do. That would satisfy the smug-faced cynics of the world, who don’t seem to care about Alice any more than a missile cares for its target. Everyone involved in the making of this film seems to understand: This could happen to any of us. And that’s why they don’t turn Alice’s occupation into a snide irony: this is a tragedy, plain and simple. This film is a revelation, plain and simple.
Still Alice was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress (Julianne Moore) at the 87th Academy Awards.