Tuesday, June 12, 2018

In Character: Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore is one of the finest actors working today. Which made writing this post so difficult. Truly, as I made my way back through Moore’s work – from her early character roles to her recent star performances – I was reminded that this woman is damn near perfect in everything. Here are my picks of her best performances, but there are many to choose from, so do feel free to share yours!

Five Essential Roles
Boogie Nights (1997)
Amber Waves
For me, the entire crux of Amber Waves can be found in a scene that begins with Amber sitting alone in a conference room, awaiting a child custody meeting with her ex to begin. She’s conservatively dressed and anxious. A woman walks in and introduces herself as the judge. The judge asks Amber if she has a lawyer. Amber sheepishly says, “No. I don’t,” and then Moore takes a perfect beat and quietly, almost to herself, repeats, “I do not.” It’s as if she knows she’s going to lose, before the meeting has even begun.

Amber does lose, but instead of hearing the judge say it, director Paul Thomas Anderson cuts to Amber standing outside of the courthouse, sobbing uncontrollably as people walk by without a care. It’s a brutal scene, one that encapsulates that all the fun Amber has had in her professional life is finally catching up with her. 

Magnolia (1999)
Linda Partridge
While I remain thrilled that Moore received an Oscar nomination for her work in Boogie Nights, it is a crime that she was ignored for her ferocious work in Magnolia. You can take any scene of Moore’s in the film and highlight it as her standout sequence. From telling her lawyer to repeatedly, “Shut the fuck up,” to going off on a pharmacist. From slapping Philip Seymour Hoffman, to deciding her own fate. Linda is a keyed-up role that gives in.

No one in Magnolia is having a good day, and as Linda, Moore keeps the film grounded in utter despair. Also, like most every other character in the film, I wonder where Linda is now.

Far from Heaven (2002)
Cathy Whitaker
Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is an important, beautiful film anchored by a tender performance from Moore. Cathy Whitaker cannot catch a break. Her quaint life is initially uprooted when her well-to-do husband (Dennis Quaid) is caught soliciting sex with men in town. While dealing with her collapsing family, Cathy seeks friendship from her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). But this is 1950s suburbia, where gay and interracial relationships are met with isolation and violence. So begins Cathy’s heartbreaking transition from merry home keeper to abandoned damsel. I so appreciate the painful honesty Moore put into her work in this film. When it’s at its best, Far from Heaven lets its camera stare longingly at Moore’s face, as Cathy patiently waits for resolve. And that is certainly saying a lot about the strength of Moore’s talents.

The Hours (2002)
Laura Brown
Moore is so great at balancing joy and melancholy in her performances, and her turn as Laura Brown may be the most quietly melancholic performance of her career. This is restrained, dialed-back work; a ticking time bomb of repression. Laura is pregnant with her second child, married to a loving man (John C. Reilly), and mother to a precocious young boy. On the surface, all is well in her 1950s suburban household. But inside, Laura is crumbling. She’s lost and confused; plagued by depression and wanting out. But, because she lives in a 1950s, suburban household, where appearances are everything, she’s forced to internalize her feelings, and consider doing something horrible about them.

On paper, Laura Brown is not dissimilar to Moore’s Cathy Whitaker from Far from Heaven. But The Hours and Far from Heaven are very different films, and the fact that Moore was able to create two wholly unique characters in both films (which were released in the same year) again speaks to her skill as an actor.

Maps to the Stars (2014)
Havana Segrand
David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is absurd, vicious, and completely insane. And I love every second of it. The film is a violent, pitch black humorous take on Hollywood, and the sacrifices people have to endure to achieve and maintain stardom.

Havana Segrand is a mess. She’s a fifty-something teenager who will do anything for a great role, all while battling some very serious PTSD from abuse she suffered at the hands of her movie star mother. Everything Havana does and says is completely outrageous, but, somehow, Moore makes it work. Every time I watch this film, I believe Moore’s every immature action. Truly, this is go for broke, furious work. Still Alice came out in 2014 as well, and that lead Moore all the way to a Best Actress Oscar. I’m thrilled Moore’s talent was finally acknowledged in such a grand way, but for my money, Havana Segrand should have brought Moore to Oscar gold.

Wild Card
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Maude Lebowski
I don’t always do a Wild Card selection for these In Character posts, but when I do, I typically use it to highlight a performance I love in a movie that many would consider a guilty pleasure. The Big Lebowski isn’t a guilty pleasure, it’s just a straight-up pleasure, and Moore’s brief and purposefully absurd work in it has always been a highlight for me.

“…the word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.”

The Best of the Best
Safe (1995)
Carol White
I saw Todd Haynes’ Safe for the first time about seven years ago, long after I had become a great admirer of Julianne Moore. Foolishly, I assumed that Moore’s work in the film wasn’t going to be particularly memorable, as I had heard very little about Safe.

About 20 minutes into the movie, I realized how wrong I was. At the risk of venturing into hyperbole, Safe is unlike any film I’ve seen, and Moore’s performance in it is a revelation of acting. Like all unique films, Safe is a difficult to classify. Moore plays an ordinary housewife named Carol. Carol is quiet and kind, she has unremarkable friendships, a decent marriage, and a good relationship with her stepson. But shortly into the film, Carol begins being plagued by random bouts of coughing, exhaustion, vomiting, nose bleeds, spasms, and more, all caused by an elusive illness. Medical professionals eventually reach the conclusion that Carol has multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition that causes Carol to react violently to everyday household chemicals. But they still can’t find a way to treat Carol’s symptoms.

For most of the film, we watch Carol as she literally withers away from the inside out. In portraying Carol’s descent, Moore delivers a performance of sheer, realistic horror. It is devastating and spellbinding work, from the film’s melancholic opening, to its controversial conclusion. Let me put it this way: After I watched Safe, I knew that not only did it contain Julianne Moore’s best performance, but I simply cannot envision any of her other performances beating it. And think about that. Think about Moore’s body of work, and what that says about Carol White.

Other Notable Roles
in Short Cuts
As the World Turns (1985-1998; 2010)
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Benny & Joon (1993)
Short Cuts (1993)
The Fugitive (1993)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
Nine Months (1995)
Assassins (1995)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Psycho (1998)
Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
An Ideal Husband (1999)
The End of the Affair (1999)
Hannibal (2001)
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005)
Children of Men (2006)
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)
30 Rock (2009-2013)
Chloe (2009)
A Single Man (2009)
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Game Change (2012)
Being Flynn (2012)
Carrie (2013)
Still Alice (2014)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 & Part 2 (2014/2015)
Wonderstruck (2017)


  1. I've never seen Safe, but I want to know after reading this.

    I also want to rewatch Magnolia now.

    1. Ohhh I can't wait to hear what you think of Safe. It is so different, so bizarre, so great.

      Isn't Magnolia just great? Never a bad time to rewatch that one.

  2. I love Julianne Moore so I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't seen any of the top 5 movies! I think I need a movie marathon soon...

    1. Ohhh you have some GREAT movies ahead of you! I cannot recommend Boogie Nights and Magnolia highly enough. And she is so very perfect in Safe. Hope you enjoy them!

  3. I must must must try [Safe] again. I thought I'd adore it and was incredibly bored. Might try to secure in HD and stick on a big screen next time. Great post on a treasure of the craft. Moore stuns in pretty much every role she takes.

    1. I hear you for sure. The first time I watched Safe, I spent much of the movie saying, "What the fuck IS this movie?!" aloud. But I do cherish that film. Such a singular vision.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

  4. Safe.... that is a true crowning achievement in cinema. Definitely my favorite film from Todd Haynes and my favorite Julianne Moore performance. It's an intensely scary film and just ravishing in every frame it's in. Haynes' direction is perfect in how detached it is from what is going on with his usage of the wide shots. It's a good thing I have that film on DVD.

    That scene in Boogie Nights is definitely a key moment as here is a great piece of trivia. The woman who plays the judge in the film is played by Veronica Hart who is a legendary porn actress. This happened to her in real life which just adds so much complexity to that scene.

    There's so many great performances from Julianne Moore as she can be so dramatic and restrained in films like Far from Heaven and Magnolia to be so out there in The Big Lebowski. "Make love to me Lebowski!"

    There was also this hilarious cameo she did in The Ladie's Man where she played a former lover of Tim Meadows and the scene has her looking normal and sexy. Then, she puts on a costume and it's like... "what the fuck!?" It is so goddamn funny. Julianne Moore is a national treasure. I worship that woman.

    1. I knew you were a fan of Safe as well, but I didn't know, like me, that it was your favorite Haynes and Moore film. Love that. And man, I need to own that DVD too.

      I love that bit of Boogie Nights trivia. Makes me crack up every time I watch it. God, I love PTA.

      And holy shit, I forgot about her cameo in The Ladies Man. I just love her in everything. You're right, she's a national treasure.

  5. I've seen Boogie Nights, Lebowski, and about a dozen or so others, but none of your other essentials. Can't believe Magnolia has escaped me for so long. Of what I have seen the two I've already mentioned plus Children of Men and A Single Man are my faves. She is awesome, I obviously have some movies to watch.

    1. She's so good in A Single Man and Children of Men. Even though those are supporting roles, she still shows up in such an impactful way. Magnolia is a gem, I adore that film. Would love to hear your thoughts on it!

  6. Add me to the list of folks who need to watch Safe!
    I thought I've seen lots of Moore's films but turns out, I barely have!
    I recall watching Hand that Rocks the Cradle and recognizing a young Julianne Moore (in a recent rewatch).
    I guess I've seen more fun Moore films, as I liked her in Lost World : Jurassic Park, one of the bright spots in that misstep of a film. She's really funny in Evolution. She's great in Children of Men. I liked her in Chloe and The Kids Are All Right. She's good in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
    I ran out of adjectives for her!

    1. It's so easy to run out of adjectives for her because she's so damn great! And you've confirmed that no matter what Moore is in - serious, sad, funny, silly - she's always good. I hope you have a chance to watch Safe soon. It's really something else.

  7. Count me in as another person who has yet to see Safe. For me the Hours is her greatest work and you are so right about how amazing it is she is different there than in Far From Heaven. I also adore her work in A Single Man - she is in it for a short time but she leaves such profound impression of despair and loneliness

    1. The hardest part about writing this post was having to exclude such great work, like her performance in A Single Man. I adore that film, and her work in it.

      I hope you have a chance to see Safe soon. It is so very odd and uniquely disturbing.

  8. Nice tribute! I thought I'd seen most of her movies, but I'm surprised to have only seen two of your picks - The Hours and The Big Lebowski. The different characters she plays between those two roles are wonderful. I'll have to see the other ones. Safe sounds fascinating.

    1. Thanks Katy! Safe is, genuinely, a one of a kind movie. I hope you're able to see it soon! And I'm so happy you're a fan of Moore's work in general!

  9. I love Julianne Moore. I don't think i have ever seen her give a bad performance. My favorite has to be Magnolia though. Even in a packed movie like that full of scene stealers, she still manages to stick out. I have never watched or even heard of Safe though. I definitely need to seek that one out now though. Sounds great.

    1. She's so good, isn't she? Can't argue with your Magnolia pick. I don't know if you've seen the Making Of doc of that movie, but there's a brief clip from it that I've always remembered regarding Moore's work. Basically, they show PTA gearing up to shoot the very first shot of the movie, and it is a quick shot of Moore walking hurriedly in a building. She’s so rushed and frantic. It really gives you some insight into how difficult that performance must have been. She’s “up” the entire time.

    2. No, i don't think i have watched that one. It's probably on my blu-ray so i will definitely have to check it out. Might even give Magnolia a re-watch as well soon. It's been a while since i watched it now.

    3. I highly recommend it. It's a pretty expansive Making Of. At one point, William H. Macy starts making fun of PTA and it's priceless.

  10. Easily one of my favourite actresses. Love that you highlighted Maps to the Stars, I cannot believe how underappreciated that film is, especially for a Cronenberg. Also, it's been years since I've seen Safe and I remember very little of it, but I remember that Moore left a big impression on me, so definitely time to revisit that one. Great post!

    1. Thanks man! I don't know how its release went in your country, but Maps to the Stars was botched here. It had one of those unfortunate releases where it did well in festivals but the distributor didn't bother to push it out in the US. It literally played in LA for 7 days, then it was gone. Had it received a proper release, I like to think it would be better remembered. But either way, Moore is SO GOOD in it!

  11. She’s the definition of a powerhouse. She pours every ounce of emotion into her work. Man, I love Julianne Moore.

    1. Hell yeah! One of the all-time greats. What's your favorite performance of hers?