Two actors seem likely to win Academy Awards next month for playing characters struggling with debilitating diseases. One is Eddie Redmayne as the real-life scientist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," and the other is Julianne Moore as a professor with early-onset Alzheimer's in "Still Alice." They're the kinds of roles that actors love, requiring a range of heightened emotions in the face of life-threatening circumstances.
Redmayne and Moore, however, are doing something different. Their characters aren't just facing a loss of life but a loss of self. Hawking's motor neuron disease steadily diminishes his ability to communicate via speech or even gestures; by the film's end, Redmayne's acting is reduced almost entirely to his eyes. Likewise, Dr. Alice Howland, Moore's fictional character in "Still Alice," is losing her memory -- not just of her professional skills but of the people she loves and the very experiences that make her who she is.
It's hard to say which performance is better, but Moore's is the more heart-wrenching. In "Still Alice," based on Lisa Genova's 2007 novel, Moore presents us with a vibrant, 50-year-old woman at the top of her personal and professional game. She's a star in the linguistics department at Columbia University. Her marriage to John (Alec Baldwin) is solid. Her grown children -- Kate Bosworth as snooty Anna, Hunter Parrish as levelheaded Tom and Kristen Stewart as the budding actress Lydia -- seem more or less equipped for life.
Small hiccups in Alice's memory -- a word forgotten, a question repeated -- are followed by major blank-outs, like a casual jog that turns into a nightmare of disorientation. "I think I have a brain tumor," Alice muses, but a doctor's appointment reveals the real problem. What's more, Alice's children may develop early-onset Alzheimer's as well. A simple medical test can tell them, but is such dreadful knowledge even worth having? Each will have to decide.
Written and directed by spouses Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, "Still Alice" can feel a bit like a cable-television movie, hitting predetermined and familiar beats, but it also wisely chooses to find happiness in its story rather than wallow in tears. Ultimately, it's Moore's sensitive and dignified performance that makes the movie a must-see.