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'Still Alice' Tells the Story of Alzheimer's From the Patient's Perspective

Still Alice is a perceptive film about the tragic ways illness impacts identity, and Julianne Moore is the sole reason for its success.


Still Alice

Director: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Boseworth, Hunter Parrish
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Studio: Killer Films, Backup Media, Big Indie Pictures, BSM Studio
US Release Date: 2015-05-12

When Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice (2014), cinephiles around the world rejoiced in celebration. At long last, one of our best actresses was honored with the industry’s most coveted trophy. For many of us, justice was served. However, as time passed and the awards season came to a close, questions were raised as to whether or not Moore deserved the award, or if she won because she was overdue. Did the Academy vote for Moore’s performance in this particular film, or for her entire career?

It’s fair to say that Moore’s performance in Still Alice doesn’t equal her game-changing work in films like Safe (1995), Boogie Nights (1997), and Far From Heaven (2004), but that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have won. Still Alice is a perceptive film about the tragic ways illness impacts identity, and Moore is the sole reason for its success. With Still Alice, she shows every actor how to depict illness from the inside out, and rather than make blind assumptions, each acting choice is rooted in the reality of someone’s actual experience. As a result, her performance pays homage to the many real-life victims of Alzheimer’s disease that feel misunderstood and marginalized by society.

There have been films made about Alzheimer’s disease before, including the excellent Away From Her (2006) and Iris (2001), but Still Alice is different because it tells its story from the point of view of the person afflicted with the illness. As important and involving as the other films are, they are primarily about the caretaker, and fail to convey what, exactly, it would be like to lose one’s mind so uncontrollably. By contrast, writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland wisely focus on Alice. The film begins with the first signs of memory loss, and by the end, we’re left with a heartbreaking character study that refuses to sugarcoat the slow disintegration of the self.

Moore elevates every scene, and she is matched by an excellent supporting cast, including Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband, and Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as her children. Alice’s most important relationship in the film is with her youngest daughter Lydia, played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart. At first, Alice disproves of Lydia’s lifestyle, and there is clear animosity between them. Alice, a brilliant Columbia University professor, wants Lydia to attend college and pursue a traditional career. Lydia wants to remain in Los Angeles and make her way as a struggling actress. The diagnosis brings them closer together, and as Alice loses control and relies on her family to take care of her, Lydia is the most compassionate and understanding. In one poignant scene, Lydia probes into Alice’s state of mind, and Alice thanks her for wanting to know, which suggests that no one else in the family cares to comprehend life from Alice’s perspective, and that Alice wishes they would.

Those that purchase the DVD will be treated to a number of special features, including two behind-the-scenes featurettes. The first, “Directing Alice,” explores Glatzer and Westmoreland’s experience with illness. For four years, Glatzer suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and he died on 10 March 2015. “Directing Alice” provides insight into the filmmakers’ personal connection to the material, and why they were so passionate about the film’s subject matter. In addition to this film, they directed the wonderful coming-of-age drama Quiceañera (2006). The other featurette, “Finding Alice,” explores Moore’s preparation for the role, and we learn that she spoke to numerous women with Alzheimer’s disease in order to accurately portray her character.

A number of critics complain that Still Alice is better suited to television. Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine, for example, argues that Moore and Stewart barely save the film from “the banality of its Lifetime-movie execution,” and A.O. Scott of The New York Times compares the film to “a conventional, made-for-television disease melodrama.” Critiques like these reek of snobbery. Have these critics not seen Temple Grandin (2010) or The Normal Heart (2014)? Both are made-for-television movies about disease, and both are excellent.

These unfair criticisms call attention to an elitist cinema culture that routinely dismisses films that appeal to the audience’s emotions, which is surely what films about illness intend to do. Rather than feel empathy for those that suffer from illness, critics instead brand these films with words like “sentimental” and “melodramatic” to steer audiences away from them, and toward more intellectual fare like Winter Sleep (2014) or Under the Skin (2014). Is it any wonder that most moviegoers don’t pay attention to critics? Why should they when some of the most respected and widely published professionals are unable to shed a tear?

Some critics praise Still Alice, but even they have to clarify that the film rises above the “movie-of-the-week mechanics,” as Steve Persall of the Tampa Bay Times does. It’s unfortunate that “illness movies” have been marginalized in such an extreme way to the point where they must accept their inferior status as the made-for-television alternative. The irony shouldn’t escape anyone, and I can’t help but wonder if this problematic perception of the genre in some way mirrors our society’s perception of people with illnesses. That is, do those that routinely dismiss illness movies do so because they have an issue with the movies, or because they have an issue with the subject matter? Why are some critics unable to confront the emotional intensity of these films?

Of course, each film should be judged by its own merits, but when an entire genre is consistently denigrated by critics, there is a larger problem at play. In this case, it seems that illness movies are dismissed because they engage with emotions instead of the intellect, and some critics aren't able to do that. This is an absurd reason to disregard a film. These stories, like any other, deserve to be told, and when told well, they deserve to be praised. Still Alice is an example of one that is told extremely well.

Unlike critics, moviegoers comprehend that the most impactful movies are the ones that make us feel something, and that these feelings come from a filmmaker’s ability to manipulate our emotions. Many moviegoers will be gladly manipulated by Still Alice.

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