When Julianne Moore, one of my favorite actresses, won the Oscar earlier this year for Best Actress for her performance as a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in STILL ALICE (2014), I made sure I added this movie to my Netflix queue.
In STILL ALICE, Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old linguistics professor who at this stage of her life has everything going for her. She enjoys a successful career. She’s happily married to a great husband, John (Alec Baldwin) and she has three wonderful adult children. She has little more to worry about other than trying to convince her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) to put off her stage acting career just long enough to go to college so she’ll have a fall back plan if acting doesn’t work out, an argument that never gets her anywhere since Lydia is adamant about her love of acting and resents her mom’s meddling.
But when Alice struggles to remember some of the words to her linguistics lecture, and later when she actually gets lost while jogging, she realizes something is wrong and she seeks medical help. To her astonishment, she learns that she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease for which there is no cure. Worse, she is informed that her disease is genetic, which means she has likely passed on the gene to her children.
When she breaks the news to her husband John, he reacts first with denial before finally coming to terms with her diagnosis. Their children are devastated but supportive. Her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is tested and learns she too has the disease, while her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) learns that he does not have the disease. Lydia, ever the rebel, refuses to be tested, as she doesn’t want to know.
As the movie goes on, Alice’s condition deteriorates dramatically, and as she fights the losing battle to keep her memories and more importantly her dignity, and as her family struggles with watching her turn into someone they do not know, everyone strains to remember that through it all, she is still Alice, the wife and mom they all love.
STILL ALICE is not a happy movie. But it is a rewarding one, even if the plight of Alice Howland, like real-life Alzheimer’s sufferers around the world, is one without a happy ending, as there remains no cure for Alzheimer’s.
As expected, Julianne Moore is excellent as Alice. To watch her, a smart, albeit brilliant linguistic professor wrestle with her mental faculties is horribly depressing. At one point in the movie, Alice makes a point of saying that being smart was her identity; it was how she saw herself. For her, language, words, and linguistics were as much a part of her being as the way she looked, and now she was fighting to remember them. It was, she said, as if the disease was ripping away her identity.
Moore captures completely the feeling of struggling with memory. A distant lost look comes over her face, and suddenly her memory fails her. It’s painful to watch. Unable to put up much of a fight, Alice deteriorates into an entirely different person. Once this disease takes hold of her, there’s nothing she can do to stop it.
Her best moment, and one of the best moments in the entire film, is when she speaks at an Alzheimer’s conference. As she reads her speech, she highlights each written line in yellow to prevent her from reading it again because she can’t remember what she just read. She makes many wonderful points in this speech. One of them is how difficult it is for Alzheimer sufferers to be taken seriously when they seem so incapable and even ridiculous, but she reminds her audience that this is not who they are. It’s the most poignant moment in the movie.
Alec Baldwin is effective as Alice’s husband John. He doesn’t come across as the clichéd loving husband. He is supportive, yes, and when Alice can’t take care of herself, he’s there to care for her, at first, but he doesn’t like it, and he struggles with having to watch his wife become a helpless person. Later, he is offered a new position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, far away from their New York home, and Alice asks him to delay the move, but he doesn’t want to. It’s clear that he can’t handle taking care of his wife, even though he wants to.
He also talks down to Alice at times, as if she’s a child, telling her to go to bed when she was panicking about losing her phone, for example. These scenes are frustrating, but they also come off as real. John seems to love his wife very much. He’s just not very good at dealing with her illness.
Baldwin and Moore work well together, as they did on TV’s 30 ROCK, where Julianne Moore guest-starred for a time as Baldwin’s love interest.
It was so good to see Kristen Stewart not in a TWILIGHT movie. She’s really good here as Moore’s youngest and most rebellious daughter Lydia. Other than Moore and Baldwin, she gives the best performance in the movie. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about Stewart before. Not that I’ve ever thought she was a poor actress, but that the films she was in rarely gave her the opportunity to do much more than brood. This is probably the best role I’ve seen Stewart play.
It’s also a rewarding role. Lydia butts heads with mom constantly, and yet, later when John is not there to care for his wife, it’s Lydia who moves in to take care of her mom. In spite of their rocky relationship, Lydia and Alice share a special bond.
The rest of the cast is decent. Kate Bosworth is fine as Alice’s oldest daughter, as is Hunter Parrish as their son Tom. Parris must like playing Baldwin’s son, as this is the second time he’s played Baldwin’s son in a movie, having done so in the comedy IT’S COMPLICATED (2009), which also starred Meryl Streep and Steve Martin.
STILL ALICE was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Their screenplay was based on the novel by Lisa Genova. These guys did a terrific job behind the camera. They captured three fabulous acting performances by Moore, Baldwin, and Stewart, with Moore winning an Academy Award. Sadly, Glatzer passed away earlier this year from complications from ALS.
STILL ALICE is a well-written, directed, and acted movie that reminds us of the finality of Alzheimer’s disease. It follows one woman’s struggle to keep her dignity and remain relevant, even as her mind deteriorates to the point where she can’t even recognize her own children. It’s also a showcase for Julianne Moore’s considerable acting talents.
Perhaps most importantly the film asks us to remember that people with Alzheimer’s aren’t simple-minded forgetful folks but individuals suffering from a disease without a cure, and as such, they deserve dignity and respect.