One of the last Oscar nominated movies that I saw before Sunday’s awards ceremony was Still Alice. This was partially a logistical issue – it didn’t open in Albany until February 13th – and partially an emotional issue. I was putting off seeing the film because I simply didn’t know how it would affect me. Julianne Moore would win the Oscar for her portrayal of a woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and her rapid deterioration, but the issue hit a little too close to home for me since my family has a history of the disease. Having lived through seeing my grandfather slowly not recognize me or his surroundings and the heartbreak that caused his loved ones, I was hesitant to dredge up those memories again. It’s hard to get motivated to see a movie when there is a very likely chance that it won’t be a pleasurable experience. But since I knew that it was likely that Moore would win, I decided to take my chances and go see the film. In the end, though it was a tough viewing experience for me to get through, I’m ultimately glad that I saw it.
Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a brilliant linguist professor at Columbia University who begins to notice lapses in her memory and ability to articulate thoughts and ideas shortly after her 50th birthday. While her husband (Alec Baldwin) assures her that it is simply a side effect of getting older, Alice seeks out a specialist and her worst suspicions are confirmed – she has a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease and there is no cure. Worse, this is a genetic disorder that she may have passed along to her three children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart). Alice’s memory deteriorates rapidly over time – not long after her diagnosis she becomes confused and disoriented jogging on campus – and she struggles to maintain some connection to her identity and her family while her memories become more fleeting.
Moore is clearly the best thing about Still Alice; her performance is poignant and heartbreaking and it singlehandedly elevates the entire rest of the film. Moore makes you feel Alice’s terror, sadness embarrassment and anger at her situation. As she loses her grasp on the person that she was, you slowly see the light and life drain out of Alice. The film quickly establishes who she is early on in the film so you understand the transformation. The vibrant intellectual from the first five minutes of the movie is replaced by a woman who cannot remember her children’s names or find the bathroom in her own home. Like most Alzheimer patients, Moore has her good days and bad, but the downward trajectory of the inner workings of her mind is constant. The true horror of Alzheimer’s disease is how it robs a person of who they are and Moore captures that perfectly. There’s an honesty and compassion to her portrayal. It’s impossible for me to fully remove my own personal baggage when viewing this performance, but I thought it was an emotionally deft and realistic depiction of what a person with Alzheimer’s disease experiences.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie cannot live up to Moore’s stellar performance. The other actors are fine – I found Kristen Stewart particularly good, and I am not usually a fan – but the story and direction don’t give them much to work with. In fact, without Moore’s excellent work, Still Alice could easily feel like a Lifetime movie. There’s not a lot of subtly to the story and while there are numerous interesting issues raised, they are often left by the wayside. This is, by design, Alice’s story and told from her perspective, but that also marginalizes many of the supporting characters. For instance, one of her children is found positive for the gene that causes early onset Alzheimer’s in genetic testing, all but assuring that they will also develop the disease. That fact, however, is related to the viewer via a phone call and never revisited, so it is hard to fully grasp the significance of this news or to see how all interested parties deal with it. It’s simply mentioned and then then forgotten, without being explored. Some of the other choices of the filmmakers, including the score and how the film is shot, also veer the film into ‘made-for-TV’ territory. If they had simply followed Julianne Moore’s lead and pulled back on the sentimentality and trusted the actors to do the requisite heavy lifting, this could have been a much better film.
I don’t know if others will have the same reaction that I did to the film, but there were several moments in the film where I had tears streaming down my face – a combination of Moore’s stellar performance and the recognition of my own experience in the story. I was young when my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but old enough to understand what was happening and to see the change in his personality and behavior. That in and of itself was difficult to process, but I also understood how the disease impacted the rest of the family and the anguish and frustration that they felt. I wasn’t the only person in the theater that was crying, but I was also probably not the only person in that room with first-hand experience with what Alzheimer’s disease does to both and individual and family. My guess is that Moore’s performance is so good that everyone will feel somewhat affected by Still Alice, but if you are coming to this film with any previous history with Alzheimer’s disease it will most definitely move you. Moore has been consistently solid for so long as an actress and it is nice to finally see her recognized. Still Alice is a worthy performance for her to take home the Oscar.
Still Alice is currently in theaters.