Few actors in Hollywood boast a track record for excellence comparable to that of Julianne Moore. After a successful stint on As the World Turns, Moore made the leap to the big screen, where she’s raked in awards nominations and worked with some of the best directors in the business, including Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Todd Haynes. Most recently, she’s picked up more strong notices in the Certified Fresh The Kids Are All Right, a dramedy about the ties that bind a non-traditional — but instantly relatable — contemporary family. Could another Oscar nomination be in the works? Time will tell, but for now, let’s look back on the best-reviewed work of one of Hollywood’s finest actresses.
Ambitious, rambling, sprawling, and indulgent, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is a movie that remains divisive to this day. But if some found its multi-stranded story perplexing, few can deny the power of its performances from such accomplished players as Tom Cruise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Moore, who plays the strung-out wife of an aging TV producer in the final stages of cancer. Recounting Magnolia‘s plot would take more space than is allotted here, so suffice to say that Moore creates a remarkably vivid portrait of a psychologically fragile woman looking for anything to assuage the pain of her husband’s condition – as well as her guilt over a dark secret in her past. Magnolia is “an impressive piece of work with some fine acting that makes holding our interest for three-plus hours seem easy,” wrote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.
When you think of Robert Altman, “light comedy” isn’t usually the first thing to come to mind. But that’s just what Cookie’s Fortune is – it’s a Southern-fried murder mystery featuring a group of wacky eccentrics that’s surprisingly bereft of the biting humor we generally expect from the auteur. One of the aforementioned oddballs is Cora (Moore), who hatches a scheme to make her aunt’s suicide look like a murder to preserve the family’s reputation. It sounds like dark stuff, but the cast (which includes Glenn Close, Liv Tyler, and Charles S. Dutton) help to make Cookie’s Fortune “a charming, quirky tale of small-town intrigue featuring a crackerjack cast,” according to Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Moore’s fruitful collaboration with director Todd Haynes began with Safe, a chilly, quietly sinister meditation on modern malaise that helped establish both its director and star as talents to watch. Moore plays Carol, a well-to-do housewife with a big problem: she believes her environment is making her both physically and mentally ill. As her condition worsens, she looks for fixes, including a cultish self-help retreat in the middle of the desert. But is Carol’s illness psychological, or is itreally the result of various chemicals in her home? Safe is ambiguous on that point, but it’s an undeniably creepy satire of bourgeoisie lifestyles and values, and Moore excels in creating a character that’s both pitiable and pitiful. “Todd Haynes takes what might have been a deadly disease-of-the-week movie and turns it into a chic postmodern chiller,” wrote Rita Kemply of the Washington Post.
Colin Firth and Tom Ford got the lion’s share of praise for the success of A Single Man, a character study about a closeted professor in 1960s Los Angeles, but Moore wasn’t totally lost in the shuffle. She picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Charley, a close friend of the grieving George (Firth), who’s attempting to recover from the recent death of his longtime companion. Charley and George once had an affair, and she never totally got over it — despite their closeness, she’s never truly accepted George’s homosexuality. Moore pulled off a complex role with typical aplomb, in a film that Bob Mondello of NPR called “wrenching and ravishing… An exquisite, almost sensual grief suffuses every frame.”
There’s no denying that the Oscar Wilde’s wit has worn very well over the years, but if you’re going to revive one of his works, you need a sense of panache – and actors able to pull off his razor-sharp dialogue. Fortunately, Oliver Parker’s 1999 take on An Ideal Husband had the latter in spades, with Moore, Cate Blanchett, Rupert Everett, and Jeremy Northam bringing energy and brio to what could have been a staid period piece in the wrong hands. As Mrs. Cheveley, Moore is a blackmailer and schemer with a vendetta against a prominent politician; this being a Wilde play, repartee, comic misunderstandings, and convoluted scheming is the order of the day. The result is a film that’s deft, sprightly, and impeccably acted; James Berardinelli of ReelViews called An Ideal Husband “an irresistible concoction of brilliant dialogue, sumptuous set design, top-notch acting, and a plot littered with Machiavellian twists.”
Vanya on 42nd Street‘s highbrow credentials are impeccable: it’s a modern take on Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya, adapted by David Mamet, directed by French maestro Louis Malle, and featuring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (the later three were responsible for the minimalist classic My Dinner with Andre. If that sounds like a snooze, it’s your loss; Vanya is a deliciously unconventional filmed play that features acting of the highest order — notably Moore. As Yelena, the young wife of a retired professor, she more than held her own among some of New York’s finest stage talent, and attracted the eye of Robert Altman, who cast her in Short Cuts. “Moore is simply outstanding, composed and modulated,” wrote Time Out. “There’s more power [in Vanya] than in all the multi-million dollar fireworks of Hollywood.”
Nominated for four Oscars (including a Best Actress nom for Moore), Far From Heaven found Todd Haynes paying tribute to the 1950s small town melodramas of Douglas Sirk — and especially the potent emotions buried just beneath the surface of their flowery veneers. Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, a Connecticut housewife whose suburban existence has all the trappings of perfection. But there’s trouble in paradise – her husband is closeted, and she finds herself falling for Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), the son of her former gardener who happens to be — gasp! — African-American. The look and feel of Far From Heaven is uncanny — it could have been a lost film from the era it portrays. But it’s a reminder that there can be hard truths buried within melodramatic scenarios; Moore takes a role that could be a cheap caricature and creates a woman filled with internal conflict, self-doubt, and, ultimately, great decency. “Beyond its value as a political critique of ’50s America or a commentary on film history, Haynes’ movie is an old-fashioned tearjerker of the first order,” wrote Jason Anderson of Eye Weekly.
Look past its sleazy content and you’ll find that Boogie Nights is, at core, the tale of a group of lonely souls coming together to form a kind of makeshift family dynamic. As veteran porn star Amber Waves, Moore personifies this theme — she plays a woman locked in a vicious custody battle with her husband, who disapproves of her lifestyle, while acting as a mentor to some of her younger co-stars — most notably Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). Moore received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance, and the film helped put director Paul Thomas Anderson on the map; he’d work with Moore again in the Altman-esque Magnolia. “Boogie Nights is truly audacious because Anderson doesn’t beat you over the head with his daring,” wrote Charles Taylor of Salon. “In the first half, he goes about turning conventional morality on its head nonchalantly, almost sweetly.”
While Children of Men contains many of the trappings of your average dystopian sci-fi flick, it’s worlds deeper. It’s also an action flick, a thriller, a road movie, and a meditation on faith and the War on Terror that’s populated with characters of fearsome intelligence and strength – particularly Moore, who plays Julian, the leader of a rebel group intent on protecting immigrants. In a grim future in which people can no longer reproduce, Julian enlists her estranged husband Theo (Clive Owen) to transport the last known pregnant woman to safety. In a film loaded with strong performers, Moore shines as a no-nonsense woman selflessly intent on saving the human race. “Instantly up to speed and powered by that rarest of cinematic fuels — intelligent action — Children of Men is a nativity story for the ages, this or any other,” wrote Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail.
Since so many of Robert Altman’s films are ensemble pieces, singling any one actor out for credit might seem to undermine the overall effect he’s going for. That said, Altman always had a knack for getting remarkable, multifaceted performances despite limited screen time — and such is the case with Short Cuts. Based on Raymond Carver’s short stories, Short Cuts features an embarrassment of acting talent — it seems half of Hollywood shows up at one point or another in this three hour masterpiece. Moore plays Marian Wyman, a painter whose marriage to a doctor might not survive a burning secret from their past. Hers is just one fine performance in a remarkably rich film; as Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, “As the grand ringmaster… Altman passes the baton to his actors, whose behavioral insights are critical to the film’s success.”
In case you were wondering, here are Moore’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:
1. The Big Lebowski — 93%
2. Magnolia — 88%
3. Short Cuts — 87%
4. Benny and Joon — 85%
5. Boogie Nights — 84%
6. The Hours — 83%
7. Children of Men — 81%
8. A Single Man — 79%
9. Far From Heaven — 78%
10. Safe — 75%
Finally, here’s Moore (and Marisa Tomei!) on an episode of As the World Tuns: