Celebrating the expressive vitality of Julianne Moore
By Eric Hynes
As with all of the famous beauties of the big screen, the camera loves Julianne Moore. What’s somewhat less typical is the camera’s tendency to stare at Moore for really long stretches of time. Directors with shooting styles and editing approaches as disparate as Robert Altman and David Cronenberg, Tom Kalin and Lisa Cholodenko, Stephen Daldry and Jay Roach, have all been compelled to set the camera across from Moore and let it roll—and roll and roll. It’s a face that obviously looks great at a glance—she’s served as a print model for L’Oréal and Bulgari—but to truly appreciate its power we need time. Julianne Moore’s face—and all that it conveys, conceals, and emblematizes—demands the dimensions of cinema.
In two of her latest films, Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, critical sequences consist entirely of long shots of her face in close-up. In the former, Cronenberg holds on her character, middle-aged actress Havana Segrand, as her agent reports that she’s been passed over for a part. Her expression simmers with constricted pain, then boils over into primal rage, and then quickly contracts into a vacant hangover—the length of the shot allowing for a serial display of varied emotions. Throughout her career, when at rest her face can convey numerous things, such as concentration, vulnerability, seduction, psychic drift—she's complexly expressive when seemingly expressionless. Whereas when she laughs or sets out on a volcanic crying jag, her face changes utterly, even violently, projecting tragedy, terror, intimidation, electricity, things harrowing and otherworldly. (Her facial schizophrenia reaches an apex in Neil Jordan’s version of Samuel Beckett’s short Not I, in which her teeth and red lips are all that’s shown yet still manage to overwhelm and mesmerize.)
The numerous long takes in Still Alice allow the audience to puzzle over ambiguities. As Dr. Alice Howland, a world-renowned linguist suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, we’re constantly unsure of what she does or doesn’t remember, and of how aware she is of what’s present or lost. It’s not just a role for which she’s perfectly suited—it’s a performance she has been building toward and preparing us for her whole career. The enigma of that face has arrested us on screens for over 20 years, and the film harnesses its power from the feelings we have for it. We’ve long wondered what thoughts are percolating in that red head, what emotions are stirring behind those giant eyes, exactly what’s informing the blush that’s so visible from within her fair, freckled skin. The difference in Still Alice is that she’s playing someone who’s as unsure as we are of what’s left to lurk behind the transparent mask.
But of course Moore is, and always has been, far more than an enigmatic face. By coming to movies when she was already past thirty (having spent her post-Boston University days acting in theater and as a regular on As the World Turns in New York), she was spared the Hollywood ingénue phase, when skills are subsumed beneath the exaltation of youth, and maturation and change are things to be cautiously managed. We never had to consider her as anything but a terrific actress. The dam broke around 1993. After small parts in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Benny & Joon, she was quickly enlisted by such legends as Altman (Short Cuts) and Louis Malle (Vanya on 42nd Street), and emerging contemporaries like Todd Haynes, for whom she gave her first truly indelible performance as the recessive, environmentally stricken Los Angeles housewife Carol White in Safe (which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival 20 years ago this month). As with her character in Still Alice, Carol wastes away before our eyes, but in Safe she was barely ever present to begin with. After her character suffers from a series of allergic reactions, and exiles herself from the city to a cultish desert retreat, Moore sheds weight and color from her face, and her normally constricted voice can scarcely be compelled to function. In the end, when she’s briefly emboldened to publicly address her fellow retreaters—again via long take, albeit from a slightly objectifying remove—she does so as a child fumbling to join phrases together, regression through innocent, desperate regurgitation.
Already a tentative figure in even familiar spaces, Moore’s Carol appears, and behaves, increasingly alien within the frame—she’s impossible not to follow but also very hard to watch. For as well as Moore embodies her characters, she’s also extraordinary adept at calibrating her characterizations to the scope and scale of individual shots and projects—playing big or small as needed, yet never quite as expected. Watch how she famously walks around nude from the waist down in Short Cuts, mindful of both our sustained gaze and her focal distance from us and costar Matthew Modine—she never poses or presents her body, and instead leaves it to us to look down and leer, to make an issue out of something so ordinary, to direct our attention away from what she’s saying. See her deflecting attention away from her big, wayward-hearted Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, repeatedly tilting away from the camera to contemplate her private sadness within the frame’s negative space, and to coddle costars that we dutifully track more closely. Conversely she gobbles up space within the widescreen of Magnolia, her Linda Partridge exploding against all constraints while her amphetamine-staccato epithets pointedly test our tolerance. And in Haynes’s Far from Heaven, as her Cathy Whitaker minutely bristles, she struggles to hold her ground as friends, family, and neighbors passive-aggressively isolate her in the room.
Because her film career started from a place of professional maturity, her work (and to a large extent, her redheaded appearance) has remained remarkably consistent over the years, even as she’s ranged between vastly disparate characters in a widening array of genres. What’s changed is that somehow she’s working more frequently than ever, starring in seven films over the past two years alone, and rejecting the standard career path for actresses over the age of fifty (or forty for that matter).
Yet even more notable than this atypical productivity is what seems like a deepening sensuality in Moore’s work. Between the roles she’s taken on and her impassioned manner of exploring them, the 54-year-old Moore has been more overtly and persistently sexual on screen in recent years. She’s playing sexy as often as she’s playing maternal, and better yet, she’s combining the two—inhabiting wives and mothers who are sexually active, curious, and even transgressive. From a lesbian-intrigued doctor in Chloe; to a frustrated, adulterous wife in Crazy, Stupid, Love; to a wise and horny night school student in Don Jon; to a sexually unscrupulous actress in Maps to the Stars; to her polyamorous-leaning lesbian mom in The Kids Are All Right, these aren’t uniformly likeable characters, but they’re all believably, unapologetically, eroticized women.
We haven’t begun to tire of watching Julianne Moore, nor will we ever. And nor does Julianne Moore seem tired of receiving our gaze—so long, it would seem, as we’re willing to keep seeing in that uncannily unknowable face intimations of women, and intimations of ourselves, we’re so unused to seeing.