HOLLYWOOD - Julianne Moore says she was surprised to learn that people in some parts of the world have mistaken “Still Alice,” her film about Alzheimer’s disease, as “science fiction” and even “horror-comedy.”
“In many places, Alzheimer’s is an alien concept … in places where few people live old enough to get Alzheimer’s,” she says, pointing out that there are places in the world people rarely live past 65.
The film is, of course, a drama, and centers on the character of Alice Howland, a 50-year-old university professor who falls prey to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Moore says audiences in some developing countries have responded with disbelief and sometimes awkward laughter during screenings, and the reaction in developed countries has also been discomfiting.
The response from critics, however, has been resoundingly positive. Moore, 54, gives a gripping performance and has earned best actress prizes at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Academy Awards.
It’s interesting to note that other actresses who have portrayed Alzheimer’s patients have also garnered awards buzz. Dame Judi Dench played the title role in “Iris” (2001), based on the life of author Iris Murdoch, and Julie Christie played a wife who is institutionalized in “Away from Her” (2006). Both women were nominated for Oscars.
“It says something that these depictions typically are of women rather than men, which skews the reality,” says Moore, who wonders if this might be because “the men who greenlight movies are less comfortable seeing one of their own afflicted.”
She adds that “some high-visibility performers avoid screenplays about Alzheimer’s, the ones who decline playing someone handicapped or ill due to a carefully crafted image.”
“I don’t have an image,” she says with a laugh.
To prepare for the role, Moore spent four months training and researching, which included interacting with Alzheimer’s patients. Around 5 million Americans are afflicted with the disease, and as of 2010 there were around 2.3 million recorded cases of severe forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s in Japan.
Those numbers might make “Still Alice” more relevant in countries dealing with aging populations, but Moore’s character deals with early-onset Alzheimer’s and faces being robbed of a considerable chunk of the prime of her life. Alice loses her job and starts to become unable to recognize her immediate family, and the film touches on the experiences of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and children.
The script was written by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, who also co-directed the film. The couple got married before the movie’s production, and Glatzer was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease shortly before starting the project. He passed away from complications of the disease in March.
“He could have done anything with the remaining ‘best time’ he had, such as travel the world or become a recluse or … just anything,” Moore says about Glatzer. “Instead he generously chose to create, with his professional and life partner, this motion picture that is touching and educating millions of lives.”
Moore believes the danger in doing projects that focus on health-related topics is that people may see it as trying to define the illness in question.
“This is simply and I think rivetingly the story of one woman and her family,” she says. “The very circumstance that it’s early-onset Alzheimer’s makes it atypical, but the experiences she and her loved ones go through are very real to most people with Alzheimer’s.”
Apart from “Still Alice” and her continuing role in the blockbuster “Hunger Games” franchise, Moore will soon be seen in “Maggie’s Plan,” a romantic comedy written and directed by Rebecca Miller, and as a detective in the drama “Freeheld,” which is based on a true story. She has also written a children’s book series about a character named “Freckleface Strawberry” and recently signed a five-book contract. At last count, she has made 61 films, four TV movies, four series and is one of few performers to have won at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals.
“I love to work,” she says. “It’s not about ego or image … it’s about being interested. There are so many topics and forums, and so many aspects of life and humanity to sample and put before the public. ‘Still Alice’ reminds us that our wonderful minds are intact — and most will remain so — but while we have what may be our ‘best time,’ now is the time to work and create and enjoy our lives and the people we choose to have around us.”
“Still Alice” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information on Alzheimer’s disease, visit www.alz.org.