Dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Whether or not this can be called a trend I’m not sure – do three movies over seven years constitute a trend? – but Still Alice falls neatly into the same subgenre that Away from Her and Amour do. Each one takes a seriously different approach to their heroine’s decline. Away from Her takes the perspective of the husband, who uses his wife’s total illness as a referendum on their marriage. Amour, the only one of the bunch to use strokes instead of Alzheimer’s, makes the deterioration from sickness and age its focus. And Still Alice seems primarily interested in what happens in the early stages of the illness, where the world continues to move at full speed around the subject who can no longer keep up. These three films each won their leading actress – Christie, Riva, and Moore – a Best Actress nomination, and Moore won a long overdue Best Actress statuette for Still Alice. For whatever reason, as audiences we seem terribly interested in watching women fade away. Away from Him with Gordon Pinsent in the Alzheimer’s role, or Still John with Alec Baldwin suffering from familial Alzheimer’s, don’t seem quite as interesting. Only Amour, I think, would still work with a sick husband instead of a sick wife; Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva seem most capable as actors of being able to play either side of the coin, either the brusque, rotting patient or the silently suffering caretaker. There’s something titillating about women losing their ability to be the “mom” within a family, even if they’re old and moved into a nursing home, or old and without children.
Still Alice has an extended scene at Christmas after Alice’s diagnosis in which she’s making dinner for everyone: butternut squash soup, a turkey in the oven, bread pudding for dessert. It’s a scene with staggering assumptions laid into it. Here’s a linguistics professor at Columbia with an international reputation and a standard textbook to her name, and she still makes dinner and is primarily responsible for keeping up with her children. John is kindly, and in the early stages of Alice’s disease he does what he can to be useful to her, but he is career-oriented throughout in a way that we only get to see a small bit of for Alice. After her illness gets worse, the majority of her scenes take place at home, around beds or in kitchens. It’s noteworthy that butterflies are associated with her and not, say, weevils, which have roughly the same lifespan as their prettier compeers. Even the decay in Alice’s mind is primarily signified through her body. In the beginning of the movie, Moore is put together. Her hair is straightened, her eyeliner is precise. Towards the end – making a stark contrast in the scene where rapidly dying Moore watches slowly dying Moore on her computer – she has wild hair, no makeup, frumpy soft clothes. It’s realistic, certainly, but it feels awfully simple for a disease with so many complexities. Moore, of course, is rather more than her costume and makeup. Her voice changes subtly during the film, so much that the original, crisp language of her first few minutes on screen is forgotten until the film’s end. In a scene where she visits a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients, the polite revulsion in her eyes is unforgettable; so too is the way that she melds mental firmness with a lack of physical control in a scene where she reacts badly to Lydia’s advice on a speech over Skype. Moore has to play at least four or five different people in this movie, and everyone of them is – because of her and definitely not because of the dialogue – a distinctly moving character. One morning she is sitting up, wearing her glasses, with a blank, serene expression on her face. Alice has been many things over the course of the movie, but that expression has never been one of them. It’s understatement with sledgehammer power which, I think, will define Moore’s oeuvre for good.
After the initial interest of Alice’s diagnosis, the film seems incapable of drawing itself out of the cliches of the genre; one can hear the filmmakers giving their pitch, telling some producer that “On the surface it’s about a woman with Alzheimer’s, but really it’s about a daughter reconnecting with her mother.” Alice reads a speech to an assembled gathering of people with Alzheimer’s, neurologists, and sympathetic figures. It’s significantly changed from her original draft – she has taken her “wayward” daughter Lydia’s (Stewart) advice and made it more personal rather than scientific. The speech is about what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s, but it casts its line into waters which have already been fished heavily. Moore does her best with it, which is no small thing, but it’s a speech which falls back on the cliches of “I’m struggling, not suffering” with shots of nameless audience members, never seen before and never seen again, reacting to Alice’s courage like cheerleaders with “CLAP!” or “MAKE SOME NOISE!” signs. A film should be able to make us feel without reminding us that we’re supposed to feel, and though much of its plot is tired, that doesn’t mean Still Alice couldn’t be effective. The relationship between Lydia and Alice is gift-wrapped from the beginning – from their first fight, we know Alice’s illness will bring them together – and at the end, Lydia puts her nascent acting career on hold to care for her sick mother. Before that, Lydia had Skyped with her mom, asked her directly what how it felt to be sick without sugarcoating it. She is the one in her family who cares the most, and Stewart plays the role well. There’s just not a whole lot for her to do. She connects to her mother through plays. She performs in The Three Sisters, reads Harper’s ozone monologue from Angels in America in the film’s last scene. (Glatzer and Westmoreland, in abdicating the majority of their final scene to Tony Kushner, prove pretty resolutely that they have very little of their own to say.) Ironically, Alice connects to Lydia best through her private journal, reading that when it’s in the same pile as a bunch of the plays in Lydia’s bedroom. Moore has to play a bunch of “this is how we know it’s Alzheimer’s” scenes in the film: she forgets words and phrases, she introduces herself to someone she already introduced herself to, she can’t find a bathroom and pees on herself, she doesn’t recognize Lydia backstage. (One scene ends with a huffy “I can’t remember the word,” which, well, duh.) This incident was one of two I hadn’t thought of, witnessed, heard about, or encountered before in some medium, and unsurprisingly it’s the among best of the bunch. Lydia uses this as a pivot point for her mother; at first she is deeply hurt, and then later on she recognizes in this moment the gravity of her mother’s illness. Whatever differences they have, the old Alice would not invade her grown daughter’s privacy like that. And so it is that Lydia seems better equipped than her perfect sister, Anna (Kate Bosworth, whose life’s work, sadly will be to play people who are as perfect as she looks) to deal with their mom’s trouble.
The second incident – more like a running idea – is John’s career. As Alice’s illness worsens, John’s position improves. Already a professor at Columbia, John gets an offer to be at the “cutting edge” of research at the Mayo Clinic. It’s a job too good to turn down, and Alice never quite asks him too. Frequently she asks him to try for a sabbatical so that he can spend more time with her; taking the Mayo Clinic position would be, frankly, the end of their marriage as people who can recognize one another. Meanwhile, the children are not in a position to take on their ailing mother either; Anna is a lawyer with twin newborns and Tom (Hunter Parrish) is in med school. Lydia, of course, does not have the means to manage her. Alice speaks frequently of losing her memories, and how that is the most painful part of her life now. But what she’s lost is possibility. Her early-onset Alzheimer’s at fifty is particularly sad in the light of say, Noam Chomsky (who is overrated) and Bill Labov (who is underrated), who both are lucid and sharp on the verge of 90. One can see a future for her in which she holds on to her mind for a very long time, updating her textbook and affirming her place in the field to the becoming a legend in her own time. Everyone else in her family, excepting Lydia, who a more coherent Alice tries to shame into keeping up with her family’s pace, is on the way to something different. If there is a real sadness in the movie, it’s here; Alice is left behind like a badly fitting pair of jeans when something flashier and better comes along. John, for all of his helpfulness and patience in the early stages of her illness, sees her as dead weight, like a forgetful cadaver he’s stuck with. “You’re a better man than I am,” he tells Lydia when she comes to live in her old room and take care of her mother, who has lost nearly all of her language. He’s right.