2 new releases, ‘Still Alice’ and ‘Cake,’ plumb the psychology of illness
I’m just gonna say it: Jennifer Aniston was robbed. Sure, when news broke last month that she had been nominated for a SAG Award and a Golden Globe (for best actress in a drama, no less!), a hue and cry went out on the blogosphere: Rachel is a serious actress?! Since when? She started getting Oscar buzz for a film no one had heard of, called Cake, and until the nominations came out last week, she seemed a real contender. Yeah, right.
Yeah! Right! She really is as good as people don’t seem to want to believe in this film, itself about as far removed from frivolous romantic comedies like We’re the Millers as you can possibly get.
Aniston plays Claire, a woman about whom we know surprisingly little for a long time. All we are sure of is: She suffers from chronic pain, occasioned by a disfiguring accident; she pops Oxycodone like Altoids; and she’s an angry, angry bitch. You might be too if you suffered as much loss as she has, though the scope of it only plays out in fits and starts. Is she really in pain, or just a malingerer?
A victim or a drug addict? Is there hope for her?
The role requires Aniston to spend 100 minutes suppressing a grimace while still reaching out to the audience emotionally. It’s a tough tightrope to walk. As she drives away those who seem to care about her — the other members of her support group (led by Felicity Huffman, who I could see playing the Claire role herself 10 years ago), her estranged husband (Chris Messina) and especially her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who both enables and looks after Claire. All of them — plus Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick and more — add fine support, but this truly is The Aniston Show.
It’s not just because Aniston has been America’s sweetheart for two decades, first on Friends, then as the hapless romantic casualty of the tabloids … though, in fact, going against type doesn’t hurt. It’s her focus, her determination to portray a character as superficially unlikeable yet sadly sympathetic, to eschew the trappings of studio glamour and dig deep into a character for art’s sake. You’re transfixed by her even as she makes you wanna pull your hair out.
Good as she is, Aniston didn’t make the cut in the Oscar race. Too bad, but ultimately irrelevant. The work stands on its own, and her performance will have to suffice as the icing on this Cake.
Even if Jen had scored a nomination, she wasn’t likely to win the Oscar, not when this is clearly Julianne Moore’s year. With her pale skin, soft red hair and china doll features, Moore has always been both a dreamy film presence and an earthy one. She seems at once ethereal and relatable, a delicate flower with hidden thorns. Those traits are perfectly attuned to the title role in Still Alice.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a Columbia University linguistics professor who just turned 50. Words, language, family — they mean everything to her. So when she starts forgetting some of them, she seeks medical attention only to be told the worst: She has early on-set Alzheimer’s. There’s no cure. She will, eventually, lose her memories … and she’ll know it.
The premise alone is the equivalent to the educated upper-classes of a medical horror show. Our identity, is, after all, the only thing we actually have, so when that goes, what’s left?
Like Cake, Still Alice could have felt like a disease-of-the-week movie, something better suited for Lifetime than an art house cinema. But the writer-directors, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (The Fluffer), don’t resort to cliché or mawkishness. It’s not giving too much away to say we never see Alice completely ravaged by this illness. That’s not the point. It’s a story of survival in the face of insurmountable odds, of character and will power and love. (Glatzer himself was, with the past few years, diagnosed with ALS, a fact that gives resonance to the storytelling.)
Moore is a savvy actress, one who engenders our affection with a fretful smile even more so than with outward warmth. She skillfully underplays the role so well, Kristen Stewart’s ham-fisted pouting is almost not even a distraction. It’s the kind of role awards were designed to honor; all the better that Moore indisputably deserves it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 23, 2015.