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‘Alice’ a challenge for Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore stars as woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty/AFP

NEW YORK — Hollywood may not be clamoring to make films geared toward women over the age of 40, but Julianne Moore is doing her best to convince those Tinseltown executives of their folly.

Two weeks ago, she won a Golden Globe for her performance in “Still Alice” as a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. On stage, she said that Cape Cod author Lisa Genova, whose book the film is based on, told her no one in Hollywood wanted to make a movie about a middle-age woman, much less one suffering from a degenerative disease.

Less than 48 hours after her victory, Moore is nestled on a plush sofa at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, cracking wise and elaborating on what she hinted at in her speech.


“I do think that there is a section of the market that’s being neglected. Because I think that there are plenty of women who want to go to the movies, and there are plenty of women who want to see movies about other women. I know I do!” said the actress, her freckled alabaster skin looking as luminous as ever.

While the current state of the movie business means a dearth of plum parts for actresses over the age of 40, Moore has continued to work steadily — and her career is hitting yet another peak.

In the spring, she wowed Cannes Film Festival audiences (and pocketed the best actress prize) as toxic gorgon Havana Segrand, a neurotic fading actress, in David Cronenberg’s pitiless Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars,” due out next month. She recently starred as President Alma Coin in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.” And she continues to earn raves for her heartbreaking turn in “Still Alice,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, which just opened in Boston. Last week, she picked up her fifth Academy Award nomination and is the clear frontrunner to take home the gold on Oscar night, with pundits remarking she is long overdue (she was nominated twice in 2002 alone, for “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours”).


Yet, Moore, a 1983 graduate of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, knows that she’s one of the lucky few to have meaty parts come her way, considering current trends in Hollywood.

“I don’t know that there are a lot of actors walking around with a wealth of choices and saying, ‘Oh, I can’t decide which part is more interesting,’” says Moore, who lives in the West Village with her husband, the director Bart Freundlich, and their two kids.

“Still Alice” appealed to her right away because other fictional stories of Alzheimer’s she’d seen usually came from the perspective of a caregiver or family member. “But this was really from the patient’s point of view, and about her experience with cognitive decline,” she says. “How did she try to hang on to who she was and what she wanted and what she loved and valued, all the way through.”

To play the role of Dr. Alice Howard, a successful linguistics professor grappling with cognitive deterioration after a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s, Moore threw herself into one of the most intense periods of research she’s ever done. What she found left her stunned and disturbed. She discovered that as many as 5 million Americans over age 65 — one in nine people in that age group — have symptoms of the disease.


She spoke with women who have Alzheimer’s in both support groups and long-term care facilities. One of her advisers was a woman named Sandy Oltz, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was only 47 and actually celebrated her 50th birthday on set. Moore learned about the sense of disorientation that can come out of the blue and cause something akin to a panic attack.

It was important for her to get all the details right.

“One of the things that I said to Richard and Wash was that I didn’t want to represent anything on screen that I hadn’t actually seen or heard about. I didn’t think it was fair,” Moore says. “So I asked people again and again, ‘What does this feel like? What does it feel like to become suddenly disoriented or to get lost?’”

Patients talked about the loss of identity, but Moore also discovered that people’s personalities often shone through, despite deteriorating cognitive function.

“I feel like there was this misconception that people who have this disease, that they’re obliterated by it,” she says. “But for every single person I met, including the people who were pretty declined and in long-term care, I got a very strong sense of who they were as people and how they communicated.”

She heard difficult stories from women who were forced to quit their jobs or were fired. “Work is a way to communicate who we are and what we care about and is something that can often define us,” Moore says. “So what matters to Alice is that her job mattered to her, and now she’s not able to do it.”


Julianne Moore in “Still Alice,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.Jojo Whilden/Sony Pictures Classics

Those with the disease described friends and family members stepping up to help in any way they could, but others receding from their lives after the diagnosis. That’s a dynamic that unfolds in the film with the shifting devotion of Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin), two daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart), and son Tom (Hunter Parrish).

The filmmakers had their own very personal connection to the material. Since 2011, Glatzer has been battling ALS. When the “Still Alice” project was first proposed, he and Westmoreland felt the subject matter might hit a little too close to home. The two have been married since 2013.

“We did have that moment of pause, like, ‘Is it going to be too much emotional weight for us to take on?’” Westmoreland says. “But reading the book was inspiring and reassuring, because we found a lot of connections with what Alice is going through and what Richard was going through. . . . It’s a movie about someone dying that somehow becomes about what it means to be alive.”

Yet the process wasn’t without its difficulties, both physical and emotional. When Westmoreland flew from LA to New York for pre-production, Glatzer had only just given up driving. But by the time he arrived in New York six weeks later for the shoot, he had lost much of the mobility in his arms and hands. Yet Glatzer remained undaunted, despite long days and often strenuous conditions, communicating with the cast and crew by typing into his iPad.


“I think we were all very inspired by that,” Moore says. “It made us think really hard about what we were doing — that we weren’t making something that was just pretend. And what does it mean to live with a degenerative disease?”

Casting Moore was an easy decision for the filmmakers (who moved the setting of Genova’s novel from Boston to New York for budgetary reasons). “If you think of all the women she’s played over the years and imagine all of them in the same room together, they’re all so distinct and yet all so real,” Westmoreland says.

While Moore says she enjoys awards shows and is excited about the possibility of winning an Oscar, she also knows that her current feast could become famine a few years down the road.

“It’s about what comes your way,” she says. “I’ve had an amazing year. But I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve found some really interesting parts, and that doesn’t always happen.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.