Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Bruce Wagner
Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd, Martin Katz, and Michel Merkt
by Jon Cvack
Beyond my mother, I honestly don’t know anyone who’s seen Still Alice, in which Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar. The performance is good and deserving, though more in the Tropic Thunder-sense with the idea of going “full retard”; that is, the very design of the an Alzheimer's performance immediately positioned the part for Oscar contention and it was about finding the strongest player - which Moore clearly was. Up until Maps to the Stars, Moore’s best role has been in Boogie Nights and Short Cuts ('93); that is, until this film, which is not just kind of better, but by far her greatest role of all time, playing a washed up mid-50s actress Havana Segrand and providing one of the most complex and engaging characters I’ve seen from this decade.
I find Cronenberg one of the most interesting filmmakers out there, exploring some dark and heavy territory, diving deep into psychological issues having to do with sex, violence, and often incest. With the exception of Fast Company ('79) and M. Butterfly ('93), I’ve devoured all his work. One of my favorites elements about his work is the exceptionally simple and natural style. I can’t lay my finger precisely on what gives a Cronenberg film its exact feel, but like any great filmmaker, I know I'm watching one of his films within moments.
The story follows four brilliant characters - starting with the arrival of Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) who wears two long black leather gloves to cover up the burns on her arms, which extend up and onto her face, partially shaded by her hair. She hires limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) - an aspiring actor/screenwriter. Agatha is the brother of child superstar Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and daughter of Dr. Stafford (John Cusack) and and Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams); a brother and sister who discovered their relationship long after the fact. Stafford is a charlatan quack psychologist who’s attempting to ride Benjie’s coattails while Benjie is the epitome of the "Rich & Famous" entitled brat, who we first meet at a children’s hospital, fulfilling the dying wish of one of his fans. He vows to get her an iPad (Mini) so she can watch his movies and then mistakenly gets the little girl’s disease wrong, leading him to berate his “faggot Jew” agent in the middle of the city streets. As with the greatest characters, Evan Bird’s had the unique ability to make me first despise his character, finding him nearly insufferable, only to evolve and gain my empathy for each subsequent scene.
What I was most excited about was to see Cronenberg’s view of Los Angeles, bringing all of his darkness and analysis to a city of dreamers. Having recently watched La La Land ('16) and having liked “Love” on Netflix (which does a pretty good job of capturing the city), I’ve always wanted to see the darker side presented. The sad reality of living out here is that few people grasp is the vast majority of dreamers out here will fail - they didn’t get the part, they didn’t get the job, they didn't get into the festival or competition. The city largely revolves around social capital - where success is as much dependent on your social value as much more than any type of merit.
In one scene, capturing the city’s spirit, while Jerome drives Agatha, she explains that she happens to be good friends Carrie Fisher, who she met on Twitter when Carrie wanted to ask a burn victim some questions. One of the most unbearable aspects of living out here is when you meet the name droppers who proceed to tell you how well they know X, Y, and Z celebrity, when you’re fairly certain these celebrities would have no clue who they are. Cronenberg zeroes on this moment by focusing on Jerome who’s heard it a thousand times before - except that Agatha actually does know Carrie Fisher (who plays herself), having met her on Twitter exactly as she describes and it’s Carrie who gets Agatha the job with Havana. It’s all so surreal, and yet works exactly the way things operate out here.
Havana has been going after a part for a remake of a movie that earned her mother an Oscar Nomination. We watch as she talks to everyone she knows, hitting up producers and agents, mentioning the favors that she’s owed. In one grueling sequence, she has a threesome with one of the producers and another woman. It’s fairly clear that Havana is not at all interested in the act, though figuring it could help her chances, she goes as long as she can until she excuses herself. Battling between her mother and declining career, she visits Dr. Stafford who offers a weird and sadistic therapeutic session.
When official word comes in that the role’s a no go, Havana has Agatha buy a smorgasbord of painkillers, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medication. It all seems headed downhill until, in a brilliant scene, where Agatha is loading up the $12,000 in clothing Havana just purchased, they meet the actress who got the role and her son. Another element of being out here in LA is that you very quickly learn what the term “haters” really mean - and I mean from both perspectives. This is a competitive town and when you’re all struggling to get where you want to go and it’s not going well and someone gets some success, the envy exists on a broad spectrum, with far too many letting it boil up inside, creating resentment and bitterness; causing congratulations to be offered behind a painful faux smile. With this setup in mind, and with Havana not just encountering someone that had some success, but has taken a very personal role that Havana coveted. I was blown away by Moore’s ability to embody this dynamic, feigning pride to the best of her ability. I always imagine an actor playing an actor has to be so tough, as it adds an additional layer - you are not acting as a person, but acting how an actor acts; meaning, Moore wasn’t acting like someone who’s envious, she was acting how actors act when they’re feeling envious - with that added layer of resentment.
I also noticed the same skill in a smaller moment, just going to show powerful Moore’s performance was - which is when she was giving an interview on television. Although we’ve seen her feign interest, care, or love toward her friends, on television we get to see Havana act for the entire world - which was charming and lovely, without even a hint of her skeletons ever showing on the screen. Again, when you think of Moore acting like how an actor would act on a television show, it adds a complexity that makes you all the more in awe.
Additionally inspiring was how much Moore committed to the appearance, gaining just enough weight where we notice and allowing the character to drift between sheer sexiness and one of the film’s most hilarious moments when Moore is constipated due to taking too much Vicodin, trying to take a shit, farting up a storm while talking to Agatha. To think that this is the same woman who in the same year played an upper class, Columbia Neurology Professor with Alzheimer's - and with equal believability - just goes to show how phenomenal this was. And so, after bathroom, when her friend who got the part’s son dies in a freak accident, dropping out of the project, Havana jumps for joy. As tragic as the story is, she finally got the part, certain that she’ll return to greatness and recover her ailing career.
Stay tuned for Part 2...
BELOW: Layers upon layers upon layers
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