"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris



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Still Alice : A Review


Still Alice, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is the story of Alice (Julianne Moore), a Columbia University linguistics professor among the best in the world in her field, who is stricken with early onset Alzheimer's disease. The film is based on the 2007 novel, "Still Alice", by Lisa Genova.

Still Alice is a pretty standard, by-the-book, 'disease' movie, the likes of which can be seen most any night of the week on cable television, with one glaring exception though, the spectacular performance of Julianne Moore. Moore's performance is meticulous, specific and forceful, all the while deftly avoiding the ever present danger of sentimentality that can so often derails actors taking on these sorts of roles.

Julianne Moore is one of the great actresses of our time. A look at her work over the last twenty years reveals Moore to be a master craftswoman and major talent. Her string of truly great and courageous performances starts in 1993 with Short Cuts and includes but is not limited to, her roles in Safe, Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Magnolia, The Hours, A Single Man, The Kids are Alright and finally this year with Still Alice. Moore's only missteps in her career have come about by being swayed by the siren's call of movie stardom. Whenever she has made the leap for the brass ring of being a 'star', she has seemed out of place. Julianne Moore is an actress, one of the best there is, and she needs to stay in the 'art house' in order for her to make the most of her exceptional talent.

Kristen Stewart has a supporting role as one of Alice's daughter's. It was good to see Stewart back on the road to recovery from those awful Twilight movies. I remember the first time I ever saw Stewart on screen, it was in Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn. Stewart played a teen girl who befriends and tries to seduce the main protagonist Chris played by Emile Hirsch. Stewart just lit up the screen in every scene she inhabited. She had a charisma and magnetism to her that was unmistakable. In the scene where she tries to convince Chris to sleep with her, her sexual yearning was palpable and her presence combustible. I thought she had big things ahead of her as an actress and artist. Then Twilight happened. She can't be faulted for taking the gig and the money, but the type of fame that comes along with a film like that can be death to an actress. Escaping the shadow of Twilight will be no easy task, as audiences have long memories and short attention spans and critics can be a fickle and unforgiving bunch. But Stewart's work in Still Alice seems like a step in the right direction on the road to artistic redemption. I think if she can do more supporting roles, in films like this, films set in the real world, as opposed to imaginary ones filled with vampires, werwolves and the like, she will stand a fighting chance to really become an actress of note. She has some great advantages going for her, she is young, she is beautiful,  and she does have talent, so I wouldn't bet against her, but she must avoid the blockbuster like the plague, and take up permanent residence in the art house.

Speaking of art, let's talk about the art and craft of acting for a moment. Playing someone with a disease of the mind is a road fraught with artistic peril. All too often actors (or directors) end up focusing on the external and trying to engender pity in the audience instead of the internal which requires embodying a character and letting audience opinions fall where they may. Another danger of the external is for an actor to get showy when portraying a mental illness, dementia or Alzheimer's character. The key to playing characters with these sorts of issues is to understand that all humans are rational thinking beings, even when they appear to act irrationally. The difference between a person acting rationally and irrationally is based on external judgement, not internal judgement. Irrational behavior is simply the result of a person's inability to perceive the world or gather information like a 'normal' person would. No one decides or chooses to act irrationally. So someone with a mental illness for example, is using logic, reason and rational thought to make decisions, it is just that their perceptions and information gathering are skewed by their illness and so their actions and decisions are based on faulty or incomplete evidence. The way to play this is to see the world from the characters perspective, not the external one we live everyday, and to stay grounded in the character's reality and be specific in intention and action. This approach helps to avoid the common problem of an actor depicting a mentally ill/brain damaged/cognitively disabled character as flighty or distracted. A great example of how to do this is Cate Blanchett's performance in her Oscar winning performance in Blue Jasmine. Her train of thought is out of sync with the rest of the world, but it isn't internally illogical, in fact it makes perfect sense to her, and it isn't distracted at all, it has a laser-like focus but just not on what everyone else is focused on.

I have worked with many actors trying to figure out these 'mentally ill' roles, and the key to unlocking them has always been clarity of thought, not obscurity of thought. This may seem counter intuitive, but it is the key to getting inside the mind of someone who isn't 'thinking right' according to the outside world. Once you can create order, logic and reasoning that fits with the internal perceptions and world view of the 'mentally ill/cognitively disabled' character, then you've created a specific, detailed and actual human being, grounded and real, and not a caricature, generalization or approximation. 

Mental illness/dementia/Alzheimer's patients are not vacant as much as they may appear to be, quite the opposite actually. Julianne Moore's Alice actually describes the internal process of Alzheimer's in the film, when she says the words are right in front of her but she can't quite grasp them. This is Alzheimer's as an internally active searching or reaching for thoughts and words, not a passive vacancy and deterioration. This is a way to fill this type of character, by filling their apparent mental void with a distinct use of their senses. For instance, how does the character try and remember? Do they use their internal sight, like Moore's description of 'seeing' the words in front of her? Do they try and listen for the words or clues? Or are they tactile, an example of which could be Moore's description of the impulse to try and 'reach out and grasp them'? Once you discover the dominant sense associated with remembering, be it sight, sound, touch or in some cases a combination of them all, then you can build internal associations that sufficiently animate the void in cognitive recognition. Combining techniques like this, and the previously mentioned clarity of thought, specific focus and intention, and the understanding of the internal order, logic and reason of a character are the ways to create a genuine and memorable character who suffers from any of these horrific diseases. This is what Julianne Moore does so skillfully in Still Alice. Both Moore's work in Still Alice and Blanchett's in Blue Jasmine are master classes in this approach to playing the mentally ill/cognitively impaired character, and every actor should study them closely.

You may think this is a lot of insider acting technique mumbo jumbo that has no application for any 'normal' person who isn't an actor, aspiring or otherwise. I think this may not be entirely true. These acting techniques are just an approach used to try and understand another human being different from ourselves. This 'other' has a radically different perception, perspective and understanding of the world than anything we have probably ever experienced. Being able to find understanding and empathize with them, and not just sympathize for them, is a way to build a connection that bridges all human conditions and conventional communication. Just the attempt to understand the internal logic of the mentally/cognitively ill, is a way to express much needed, and sometimes healing, love and release negative judgements and frustrations. These techniques are a way for the actor to express the humanity of their character, and for the non-actor they can be a way to find our own humanity and embody the compassion that the stricken so desperately need and deserve. 

As for the film Still Alice, it is a pretty average movie albeit one with an exquisitely crafted performance at it's center. If you want to watch a virtuoso acting performance surrounded by a rather mundane film, then Still Alice is the movie for you. If you are an actor, Still Alice is well worth seeing if for no other reason than to witness Julianne Moore, a master craftsperson, skillfully ply her artistry.

© 2015