From the moment Still Alice world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Julianne Moore became the favourite to win the Oscar for her performance of a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s. Which of course she did. But before this win, Moore was incredibly unlucky with Oscar. In 2007, should Kim Basinger have won for best supporting actress in L.A. Confidential over Moore’s Amber Waves in Boogie Nights? In 2002, Moore had two nominations, one for best actress for Far From Heaven and another for best supporting actress in The Hours. She lost both, to Nicole Kidman (The Hours) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), respectively.
Robert Pattinson, whose chauffeur had backseat sex with Moore’s washed-up Hollywood star in Maps to the Stars, was convinced it was time.
“It’s, like, ridiculous. Every year Julianne is unbelievable in something. She has such high quality control and never does a bad performance, ever. I don’t understand how it’s possible that she hasn’t ever won.”
Fortunately, that has now changed.
In Still Alice, Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a psychologist and academic who gradually loses all her abilities while her husband, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin), and daughters, Anna (Kate Boswell) and particularly her youngest daughter Lydia (a stunning Kristen Stewart), offer her support. What’s different from Sarah Polley’s excellent and similarly themed 2006 movie Away From Her is that we see the disease from the sufferer’s point of view.
As usual, Moore did her research to get inside her character’s head.
“I was really bowled over by the generosity of everyone I spoke to, from the Alzheimer’s Association all the way down to the researchers, to the clinicians and the patients including people who’d just been diagnosed,” she explains.
“I had Skype calls with women all across the country who had been diagnosed within a year or five years, I spent time with support groups, I went to a voluntary care facility and I met care workers and family members. What I was struck by was how willing, how generous, everyone was in their communication about the disease and what it was like to live with it.
“The most moving was hearing people try to articulate what it felt like to no longer have the cognitive functions they once had at their fingertips. When you watch someone struggle to articulate those things to you when they’ve lost that amount of articulation, it’s an immense amount of feeling and also an immense amount of trust on their part to try to communicate that. So I will forever be grateful to everyone I met. It was an amazing experience for me. Honestly.”
The film is based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova.
“My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and she was in her 80s,” explains Genova, “and like a lot of families, we just assumed that dementia was a normal part of ageing. So we sort of let it go on for quite a long time before it was really quite serious and she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
"My background is as a neuroscientist; I’m really not supposed to do any of this [artsy stuff]. I used to do brain research and so as a neuroscientist in my big Italian family I figured I’d look into Alzheimer’s and pass that education along to my aunts and my parents to better take care of her. But everything I read was very clinical. It felt like homework and was so intellectual. It was written from someone on the outside looking in like a scientist, a caregiver or social worker. So I was left not knowing what it felt like to have Alzheimer’s. I wanted to feel, to understand with my heart and not just my head. So that was the seed for the book.”
The film was written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. Glatzer suffers with another progressive neurodegenerative disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“ALS has some similarities in the way it puts barriers in between the person and the world and in how it’s important to hang onto yourself,” Westmoreland notes. “Richard brought a lot of his personal experience into the writing and he directed the movie on an iPad using a text-to-speech program.
“We had to work out how to get into Alice’s head as the story unfolds so you’re with her at every emotional moment. We sent off the first draft to Lisa and we were nervous because it’s her baby. We were like foster parents. But no one was more supportive; she was an amazing cheerleader every step of the way.”
Watch 'Still Alice'
Monday 4 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS on Demand)
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Alec Baldwin