Monday, May 13, 2013
Julianne Moore's Romanticization of Suffering
I used to be a big fan of Julianne Moore all the way back to the early 1990s when I saw her in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993) and thought she was superb in it. In a short amount of time, I saw everything she had made up to that point and I felt like I had discovered a rising star. I often told friends to keep an eye out for Julianne Moore and to expect great things from her. So it was very enjoyable and satisfying to see her rise to prominence in the later part of the decade and into the early 2000s when it seemed as if she was appearing in every major movie being made. At the time, I was much younger and had much less life experience. As such, I thought it was cool to discover an actress who had movie star glamor attached to her who also seemed willing to play roles in a very gritty, off-beat manner. I praised what I thought at the time was her range and originality. However, as I have gotten older and gained more life experience, my opinion about Julianne Moore has also changed considerably as well.
I absolutely cannot stand Julianne Moore as an actress or as an individual these days. There's something about her I find off-putting, cold and self-indulgent as an actress. No doubt, she is a very technically proficient and skillful performer, but I think she is far too attracted to the dark side of humanity in a way that borders on being misanthropic. She seems to revel in bringing out the worst qualities in a character, rather than trying to find the humanity and redeeming aspects of an individual. When she played Sarah Palin in the HBO movie "Game Change" (2012), I found her performance to be one-dimensional and predictable. She didn't show us anything about Sarah Palin that we didn't already suspect. I never got the impression that she tried hard to find anything original to base the character on. I'm not a fan of Palin at all, but I would have preferred it if Moore had tried to find the humanity in her in a way that was more inspired. (Even Tina Fey brings more humanity to her characterization of Palin with her humorous interpretation of Palin's personality.) I have no problems with actors and actresses playing characters as unsympathetically and gritty as they need to be. But, in Julianne Moore's case, I get the feeling that she seems interested in taking characters that were not meant to be dark or pathetic or horrible and foisting those qualities upon them whether it is appropriate or not.
Two cases on-point were Moore's appearances in Gus Van Sant's horrendous remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1998) and Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" (2001), the poorly received sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). In both instances, Moore was assuming roles played by, respectively, Vera Miles and Jodie Foster that were already well-known to movie audiences. Moore added nuances to them that must have seemed inspired and original to her at the time, but now seems heavy-handed and inappropriate in retrospect. In the case of "Psycho," Moore took the character of Lila Crane, the concerned sister of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh in the original, Anne Heche in the remake) and turned her from a low-key, buttoned-down and sympathetic lady into a grungy, cold, aggressive grouch. Admittedly, there is not much depth to Lila Crane on the page, but at least Vera Miles didn't try and do anything with the character that stuck out like a sore thumb. In Moore's presumptuous hands, adding those aspects to the character of Lila didn't help bring depth to the character or enhance the movie. They just appeared distracting and annoying and showed how Moore failed to understand how Lila was meant to be a plot device to help resolve the storyline. Because she makes Lila so unsympathetic, you don't care at all what happens to her and this undermines any potential suspense the movie might have had. It's the perfect instance of an actress who doesn't understand what her character's purpose is in the context of the movie.
Moore does even worse while taking over the role of FBI agent Clarice Starling from Jodie Foster in "Hannibal." It must have been a daunting task to replace Foster in such an iconic, Oscar-winning performance, but Moore doesn't even give the role a chance. This is reflected on the surface-level by Moore's god-awful phony Southern accent, which is so broad and grating that it misses the low-key, lyrical subtleties that Foster brought to her Southern accent in the first film. What made Clarice Starling such a fascinating character wasn't so much her intelligence, courage and assertiveness (though those were all important elements). Rather, it was the decency, compassion and humility that Foster brought to Clarice that made the character special. Moore never understood that, which is why in her hands Starling becomes cold, disconnected, impersonal. Clearly, the qualities of decency that I just described have never been Moore's strong suit as an actress, whereas Jodie Foster on the other hand has made a career out of finding the decent and redeeming qualities in every character and situation. Mind you, the story and screenplay of "Hannibal" continually puts Starling in situations that don't allow her to demonstrate her strengths the way "The Silence of the Lambs" did, but Moore never does anything to remind us what it was about Clarice that made her such a special individual in the first film. She makes Starling such a bland, uptight stick-in-the-mud, without the humanity and vulnerability that Foster brought to her, that you wonder why Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) would have remained interested in Clarice's well-being in her later incarnation. If Moore had played Clarice in "Silence of the Lambs," I doubt Lecter would have ever taken the personal interest in her that he did.
I think the role that really turns me off to Julianne Moore now is, ironically, the one I used to like her in the best, as Linda Partridge in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (1999). In that movie, she played the young trophy wife of a man (Jason Robards) dying of cancer. She becomes unglued at the thought of losing her husband who she married for his money and used to cheat on. Moore overacts in scene-after-scene depicting Linda's emotional breakdown during the course of a day. (She resorts to the sort of melodramatic histrionics that we normally associate with daytime soap operas, but which she ironically never seemed to use back in the day when she was on "As the World Turns.") Her big scene, blowing up at a nosy, pesky pharmacist while she is picking up prescriptions for her and her husband, used to be one that I greatly admired. I used to like the uncontrolled rage that she expressed in that scene and thought she deserved an Oscar for it. (This was back in the day when I thought an actress expressing big emotions, as if she were on-stage projecting to the last row in the theater, constituted good acting.)
But having experienced my own father's battle with cancer, and spending a great deal of time taking care of him at the end of his life, I now realize what an utter fake "Magnolia" is as a movie, and how absolutely awful and artificial Julianne Moore's character and performance was. Having previously not had that experience of dealing with a loved one's illness, I used to accept the melodramatic emotions in that movie at face value, but now I see it as being phony and contrived. In my experience, and after talking with nurses and other individuals who have experienced the process of caring for a dying loved one, I realize that people don't often act with rage, anger and craziness the way Julianne Moore (and, to another extent, Tom Cruise) did in that movie. I have found that people usually try to make things as peaceful as possible for all involved because they are all already physically and emotionally exhausted by that point and want to ensure that their loved one, and everyone nearby who is helping to take care of them, is as peaceful as possible. It's an experience that makes people less narcissistic and the movie, and Moore's performance, misses that point. I really resent both "Magnolia" and Julianne Moore for misrepresenting how family members of a dying loved one behave at a time like that.
The only time in the last few years that I thought Julianne Moore gave a good performance was when she returned to "As the World Turns," the daytime soap that launched her career, to briefly reprise her role as Frannie Hughes. In the April 5, 2010 episode, Frannie returns to help celebrate her parents wedding anniversary. Because the episode provides Moore a short cameo, she isn't given the broad canvas that she usually has to go out of her mind as an actress and is forced to give a controlled, low-key performance. It brought out warm and sympathetic qualities that Moore has shunned throughout much of her film career. She does a good job in the scene where she makes a toast in honor of her parents. For once, Moore knows that she's there not to take center stage, but to let the other actors shine and, in so doing, brings out the best she has to offer as an actress as well. Julianne Moore is usually praised for the so-called "reality" she brings to movies by playing characters in an unsympathetic and ugly manner, but I think she was at her most real when she was on daytime television playing a decent person like Frannie Hughes.
I have read interviews through the years where Julianne Moore paints herself as a "boring," "normal" individual who still rides the subways of New York City with her family. I'm always amused by people who can afford not to take public transit who still do so anyway just because they have romanticized what the rest of us have to do out of necessity. Moreover, I didn't care for how she described her reasons for becoming a British citizen in another interview a few years ago. Moore explained that her Scottish-born mother reluctantly renounced her British citizenship and became an American citizen because her father was an Army JAG and couldn't be married to a foreign national. As Moore recalled, "Her parents emigrated when she was 10, so she didn't have a choice about moving to the United States. She married my father and had to renounce her British citizenship. My sister and I both remember her coming home in tears carrying the American flag." Moore's negative sentiment about her mother's naturalization as an American citizen fails to appreciate the challenges and struggle that immigrants face while becoming American citizens. At a time in our history when immigration is a hot button issue, and millions of people are trying to become American citizens, Moore demonstrates an arrogant sense of entitlement and a narcissistic lack of humility by painting her mother's naturalization as an American as some sort of tragedy. Because Moore was born in the United States, and was handed her American citizenship and didn't have to go through the process of working for it like immigrants are required to (and as such doesn't have to live her life worrying whether people will question if she's an American), she doesn't appear to understand how becoming an American citizen is, in fact, a very positive event for many people. There's nothing tragic about it and Moore's ability to pooh-pooh and characterize it as such seems to demonstrate how she is far too interested in wallowing in negativity.
Moore has also stated in several different interviews that she is attracted to playing dark characters, or finding the darkness in otherwise light characters, because her own life is so stable and happy that it allows her to work out those emotions in her work without having to live it in her own life. This attraction to finding the darkness even in allegedly brighter situations saw its zenith when she played the unhappy 1950s housewives in both "Far From Heaven" (2002) and The Hours" (2002). I used to think naively that that showed how grounded she was because she wanted to exorcise negativity from herself by playing it on-screen rather than experiencing it at home. These days, however, I consider it a pompous, self-serving, elitist statement that suggests the extent to which Julianne Moore sees herself as being better than the rest of humanity, who don't have the luxury of being an actress to play out negative emotions and events in their lives on-screen because they already have to deal with it in their daily reality.
As I get older, I am less and less enthusiastic about misanthropic movies and actors that set out to show the worst that humanity has to offer. I always try to remain as positive and optimistic as possible, but I also have seen and experienced enough to realize that life can really stink despite one's best efforts otherwise. There's enough suffering, nihilism, and misanthropy in day-to-day life that I don't enjoy watching movies that self-indulgently wallow in it. I find it absolutely obnoxious that Julianne Moore thinks it's appealing to play dark and unsympathetic roles because she doesn't have those elements in her own life. It suggests a lack of humility on Moore's part about the sort of struggle and suffering that other individuals have to deal with in their daily existence. There's a quote attributed to her on IMDB that says that she realizes, as she gets older, that people have enough darkness in their lives that they want to laugh when they watch something on-screen. Even though she claims to have had this epiphany, it doesn't seem to be reflected in her own work. As I get older, I am not for the romanticization of suffering at all, especially not the way Julianne Moore portrays it.