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Happiness and Artifice: The Performances of Julianne Moore

Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) comes to the dance club frequently. She loves the music—‘70s and ‘80s pop ballads and disco hits—and dancing, but after 12 years of being divorced, she’s constantly looking over her large-framed glasses, trying to be noticed. Tonight, she will be. She catches the eye of Arnold (John Turturro), who approaches her slowly and awkwardly. She notices him, but doesn’t immediately warm, until he jokes about her looking happy. Gloria laughs, but her response has a stop-start rhythm, as if she’s deciding in the moment how much she wants to reveal and recognizing only there and then how truthful she’s being. “Sometimes I am,” Gloria smiles, bouncing around a bit as if weighing whether to let the rest out. “Sometimes I’m sad.” 

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It’s simple, but in her laugh and her slight shifts in expression, Gloria simultaneously shows amusement at her suitor, genuine attraction, and years’ worth of loneliness. It openly acknowledges the nuance that comes with aging—knowing that much of life has passed her by and that while she’s experienced plenty of joy, she’s also not totally satisfied that this is it. She finishes: “Like everybody.”

Julianne Moore is one of cinema’s greatest laughers, and one of its greatest criers. She seems to have an almost superhuman control over her facial muscles, breaking out laughing or bursting into tears so quickly that it takes a viewer by surprise and sears itself into their brain, no matter how many times they’ve seen her unmistakable, tooth-bearing guffaws and sobs. Yet she’s also one of the best actors in the world in terms of communicating her feelings to an audience while plausibly hiding them from those around her, maintaining an artifice of happiness. Often, it’s because she’s navigating a restrictive or hostile world. Sometimes she’s just trying to protect herself or those around her from being hurt. 

Her latest film, Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria Bell,” is a rather faithful remake of the director’s 2013 Chilean film, but it’s still largely a pleasure to see another story of a woman trying, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to find a measure of happiness and a moment of truth in her life, all while dismissing the things pointing to trouble until she can’t anymore. These five films best exemplify Moore’s extraordinary range and the richness of her body of work.

1994: “Vanya on 42nd Street”

An army brat, Moore and her family moved frequently in her youth, and it caused her to learn to adapt to her environment at a young age. According to Moore in an interview with T Magazine: “I would change, depending on where I was. I would go to one school and everyone would dance one way and, then, at a new school, you’d notice that no one picked up their feet when they danced. You’re like, OK—I’ll shuffle my feet like them.” After initially considering a career as a doctor, she was encouraged to pursue acting, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Boston University (that location evidently didn’t rub off on her, if her uncharacteristically shaky “30 Rock” accent is any indication). 

Moore got her first major role on the CBS soap “As the World Turns,” playing the twins Frannie and Sabrina Hughes; while the work may not be frequently cited by her fans, it hinted at her ability to perform in heightened realities in which she’s required to make hairpin emotional turns. This served her well early in her career, from her entertaining supporting turns in erotic thrillers good (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”) and bad (“Body of Evidence”) to her breakout role in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” in which she drew attention for an argument with her husband (Matthew Modine) while nude from the waist down. The scene is as notable for her gradual emotional unburdening, starting from an artificial, “yes dear” pitch before growing more irritated and letting out a painful, furious confession, revealing a lie that protected their marriage for years. 

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It’s a spectacular scene, but the best of her early, pre-stardom/greatest actress of her generation roles is in “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Andre Gregory’s experimental adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” began work in 1990 and was rehearsed and performed for three years before Louis Malle shot it as his final film (Altman cast Moore in “Short Cuts” after seeing her perform it live). As Yelena, the young wife of an aging and ailing professor (George Gaynes), Moore gives a thrillingly counterintuitive performance, expressing herself in a way that suggests someone trying hard to soften her feelings so as to protect herself or others. When the curmudgeonly Vanya (Wallace Shawn) comes onto her, she lightly pats him and laughs in a way that’s not dismissive, but gently rebuffing, subtle enough that it could be easily misinterpreted or dismissed. It’s a gesture that Moore returns to and reworks several times throughout the film, trying protect a man’s feelings while remaining firm in her conviction.

And yet, Moore’s Yelena is not a happy woman trying to keep the peace, but an unhappy one trying to keep herself together despite her admittance that “this is not a happy home.” Her care for her husband, his adult daughter Sonya (Brooke Smith) and those around her is genuine, but it’s also a mask for her own pain, a role she fulfills to keep going. A key scene with Sonya sees another unburdening, a confession that she married for love but it was “not real” before discussing the girl’s potential love with Larry Pine’s Dr. Astrov. Moore speaks with the assurance of a much older woman, her voice low but warm, her face and body language receptive as she wishes for her stepdaughter’s happiness and laughs matter-of-factly at her own unhappiness. It’s only when she’s alone that she mask slips, briefly, and she’s no longer forced to adapt. It’s a mere 20 seconds of unfiltered emotional honesty, but the shift is so sudden and stark from her carefully managed act that it feels like ages before she’s forced to compose herself again. One witnesses a lifetime’s worth of sacrifices and compromises in those 20 seconds, and a whole future filled with them.

1995: “Safe

If her work in “Vanya on 42nd Street” is unconventional, Moore’s performance in Todd Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece “Safe” is wholly unique. Moore’s Carol White is introduced as a sweet-natured cipher, someone who goes through life passively and blankly. In a passionless sex scene, she’s entirely receptive without conveying disappointment; when trying to order food or change her hair, she appears to have difficulty determining A) what she wants, and B) if it’s OK for her to have it, her voice going to a higher pitch that communicates submission and lack of comprehension. She’s someone who inhabits her role as a homemaker without apparent enjoyment or pain, satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Her physical and psychic breakdown, then, plays as if her body is rebelling in a way her mind cannot.

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That breakdown is nothing less than astonishing to behold, with Moore somehow finding a way to physically manifest symptoms that defy description for an environmental disease that utterly baffles everyone around her. Moore’s coughing begins as simple reaction to smoke before turning into a bizarre, sobbing hyperventilation; her panicked gasping in the middle of a party appears to be a body rejecting air rather than trying to take more in. One can see both physical deterioration and the total horror and confusion one must feel experiencing an entirely new disease. What’s more troubling, however, is her continued recessiveness while feeling her body fail; Carol apologizes for her nosebleeds and aches in a voice that suggests guilt for putting others through her illness. She suggests a feeling or a thought, only to shut down at the slightest rebuke or bit of questioning; when she and her husband attend a meeting on MCS, she introduces herself, only to look to him with fear and the expectation that he’ll be able to explain to others and to her what’s happening.

By the time “Safe” reaches its terrifying conclusion, Carol has found a new place and a new vocation as a true believer in a self-help cult, but one with no semblance of self. Her new home is its own grotesque palace, a world that suggests she is to blame for her health and unhappiness (indeed, suggesting that her unhappiness may be partly to blame). In her final scenes, Moore speaks to others with the same vacant friendliness that she displayed earlier in the film, but only the setting (frugal rather than materialistic) and her appearance (blotchy and sickly rather than made up) have changed. Moore delivers Carol’s birthday speech as someone who’s finally been given the floor to express herself, but finds she has nothing to express but the inarticulate stringing together of motivational slogans and secondhand sentiments. She’s jumped from one repression to another, desperately telling herself “I love you” with the hope that it’ll bring something rather than the glassy unhappiness that she’s forever doomed to live out. Her despairing blankness suggests she’ll never even know what’s wrong. Though Moore belatedly won an Oscar for solid work in the Alzheimer’s drama “Still Alice,” there’s no question which portrayal of illness is more singular. 

1997: “Boogie Nights

The same year that Moore made “Safe,” she co-starred with Hugh Grants in the pregnancy comedy “Nine Months.” Many of Moore’s roles from this point forward would explore the idea of women addressing the fraught emotions that come with family and motherhood, whether it’s dealing with the grief of losing a child (“Children of Men”) or the difficulty of experiencing the distance that comes with children growing up (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Gloria Bell”). Others films still see parenthood as pathological, be it something to pursue (her hilarious work in “The Big Lebowski”) or pervert (“Savage Grace”). Moore’s best maternal performance came in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 porn industry epic “Boogie Nights,” in which the loss of one child is substituted with the adoption of many others that never quite fill that painful absence.

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Moore’s most famous scene as porn star/matriarch Amber Waves is likely her sex scene with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, not yet a coked up, cocky superstar, but rather a gifted but nervous kid who’s not yet sure of himself. The way Moore seamlessly shifts from motherly concern (reaching out and stroking Dirk’s chin, her voice going up on “are you alright, honey?”) to clumsy acting (an affectless “this is a giant cock!”) to real desire is something to behold, with the actress perfectly underlining in one scene how Amber’s roles as loving mother, semi-inept creative and talented sex worker blend together. Much of “Boogie Nights’" success is in its recognition of how these seemingly contradictory roles aren’t contradictory at all, and how Amber’s co-workers could clearly come to love and trust her as any kid would their real mother. The way she guides Dirk back to the scene in between takes, reassuring him all the way that he’s doing great, shows how any milieu can become a family, no matter how unlikely. It makes Dirk’s temporary rejection of her during his spiral all the more painful.

That said, “Boogie Nights” recognizes how societal expectations that these roles be mutually exclusive can hurt someone like Amber, not to mention how the overall atmosphere of excess can help give powerful figures ammunition against her. Every scene in which Amber tries and fails to reconnect with her biological son is a deeply painful one, whether she’s strung out on coke and booze and losing control (watch her wobble uncertainly as she tries to assert herself when on the phone with her ex-husband) or holding herself together as her ex attacks her in front of a judge for her career choice. The latter scene shows her trying like hell not to show outrage, raising her voice slightly only to collect herself again, showing clear knowledge that the slightest slip-up can keep her from ever seeing her son; the smash cut to a sobbing Amber is all the more powerful because of it, with Amber no longer able to hold back as she realizes she never had a chance. If Moore’s final scene is less hopeless than the ending to “Safe,” it’s just as sad in its own way, with Amber staring at herself in the mirror with weary resignation, knowing that this makeshift, artificial family is all that she has, and it’ll never be enough.

2002: “Far from Heaven

Moore has spent much of her career playing people in unsatisfying relationships and marriages, ranging from explosively guilt-ridden (“Magnolia”) to neglected (“The Kids Are All Right”) to religiously conflicted (“The End of the Affair”). Those performances are all rich in their own ways, but they pale next to her second Haynes collaboration, the Douglas Sirk-inspired “Far from Heaven.” Like Carol White before her, Moore’s Cathy Whitaker, a 1950s Connecticut homemaker, is a picture of conformity. Adopting the heightened acting style of Sirk’s melodramas, Moore appears perfectly poised and gorgeously made up, performing as if she were in an advertisement for the bliss of suburbia. One can see small cracks in the façade at key moments—her eyes seem to flash with recognition when her friends talk about how frequently they have sex with their husbands, suggesting that she doesn’t much at all—but she seems perfectly happy with her lot in life.

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Cathy, however, becomes far more aware of what’s eating away at her soul, beginning her learning of her husband Frank’s (Dennis Quaid) repressed homosexuality. Her initial reaction is one of incomprehension, with Moore stopping in her tracks after catching him with another man and searching herself in the elevator, her eyes conveying someone realizing her life is a lie. Moore spends much of the rest of the movie trying to maintain the illusion that nothing is wrong, whether she’s masking her discomfort with her husband’s drunkenness or plastering on a smile as her friend (Patricia Clarkson) questions her about a new bruise the day after. The latter scene sees a woman’s defenses slowly breaking down, her eyes swelling and her hand coming to her face after Clarkson leaves, as if anyone seeing her sorrow will make it real.

Someone does see: Dennis Haysbert’s sensitive black gardener Raymond, with whom she falls in love. Moore’s gradual warming to him—from friendly but a bit patronizing to total, unself-conscious comfort—is a marvel to behold, her body language growing more open, her smiles less broad but more natural. The film tracks a woman gradually realizing the passion she’s been missing and the person who could be right for her, only to make it impossible for the two to get together. Moore spends so much of the film hiding or denying her feelings that watching her face glow with yearning as she confesses her love is truly heartbreaking, her face freezing back into a forced smile as she recognizes her best chance at happiness being ripped away. If “Safe” follows someone escaping one constrictive role only to dive into another without realizing it, “Far from Heaven” is the story of a woman who realizes how limited her life has been, only to be kept from truly breaking free.

2014: “Maps to the Stars

Still, it's a better fate than what awaits Moore’s character in David Cronenberg’s hilarious, horrifying Hollywood takedown “Maps to the Stars.” Moore has had a few opportunities in her career to play villainous or morally compromised figures, some manipulative but sympathetic (“Savage Grace”), some callous and calculating (“The Hunger Games” series), and some just cartoonish (“Carrie”). She earned the most acclaim for her work as Sarah Palin in “Game Change,” but Danny Strong’s script never takes enough interest in what makes the reactionary Palin tick for Moore to dig in beneath the superficial impression, with all humanizing details ultimately coming off as disingenuous. “Maps to the Stars," on the other hand, is Moore’s best portrayal of an essentially venal figure, a haunted woman whose deep insecurities and superficial charm can only temporarily obscure her selfishness and capacity for cruelty.

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Moore’s washed-up actress Havana Segrand initially engenders some sympathy, introduced with a look of abject horror on her face as her therapist (John Cusack) pushes her to relive what she believes was abuse at the hands of her more famous mother. Her vulnerability becomes more overwhelming whenever she encounters her mother’s ghost (Sarah Gadon), with Moore’s demeanor shifting to wide-eyed terror (further exaggerated by how exhausted she looks throughout) and confusion as she’s simultaneously confronted with painful memories and remembrances of her own failures. At the same time, Havana’s deep neediness makes her perfectly pathetic. Moore runs through her to-do list as if she’s begging for help from her assistant (Mia Wasikowska) and leans into conversations with her agent like someone who’s trying and failing to hide how desperate they are for validation. She plays Havana as someone who’s in constantly in the throes of both psychological abuse and self-degradation, plausibly hurt by those around her without recognizing how much she contributes to her own unhappiness.

Moore and Cronenberg recognize how Havana’s as rotten and artificial as anyone else in Hollywood, however, with the actress barely concealing how insincere Havana’s interest is in anyone but herself. Some of it can be picked up at how flippantly Moore delivers lines about her housekeeper having “like 40 kids,” or how she speaks to Wasikowska during their initial interview as if she’s doing her a favor, or how she barely hides her disinterest in Robert Pattinson’s limo driver (until he admits he’s a fan). The film’s funniest scene, in a laugh-catching-in-the-throat way, sees Havana’s immediate shift from shock to cravenness upon learning of a rival’s tragedy, her open-mouthed horror changing to sticking her tongue through her teeth as she plots stealing a comeback role; still, that’s nothing compared to how cheerfully she dances immediately after, celebrating and taking the opportunity to reassert control over her assistant all the while. 

If “Maps to the Stars” takes the character’s unhappiness and the emptiness of her lifestyle seriously, it also posits that maybe someone like Havana, who immediately takes to berating those beneath her once she’s back on top, doesn’t deserve happiness. At any rate, Havana Segrand, Carol White, Yelena, Cathy Whitaker and Amber Waves have spent their lives taking on and tossing out roles forced upon them by circumstance, barely getting a moment to consider whether or not it’s what they want. Whether they’re luckier to know it or remain totally oblivious, no one can say.

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