What TIFF can take credit for is the groundswell of buzz that emerged mid-week for Julianne Moore as a college professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. Like Witherspoon’s, Moore’s is a performance that lives up to the hype, proud and heatbreaking and smartly balanced between what’s internal and external about how Alice is dealing with her disease.
Suddenly, after months of wondering who might contend for Best Actress, we have an Oscar race on our hands.
Now. Far be it from me to jump the gun on Oscar talk. Last year at TIFF, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan caused a bit of a stir by declaring the race for Best Picture over, upon having seen 12 Years a Slave. The critical community blanched and raged and huffed and puffed at what it saw as awards season creep and even an oversimplification of the film’s merits (whereas I saw an acceptably hyperbolic contextualization of the simple truth that 12 Years was a hugely serious Oscar contender — also remind me what film did win Best Picture last year?). So I know I’m risking the wrath of the scolds when I say that Best Actress is shaping up to be a Reese vs. Julianne year. The scolds wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It is a long damn road to February 22nd, and we’re all going to want to gouge our eyes out if we have to talk about the same binary for five months.
But the truth is that Witherspoon and Moore both present excellent Oscar cases. For Reese, she’s a former winner (2005 for Walk the Line) whose career took a serious dip with some awful films and puzzling choices. She’s an “America’s sweetheart” type whom America never quite decided that they loved, exactly. She had that whole “I'm an American citizen” incident with the cop. Things kind of boomeranged for her from there, with public opinion swinging around to her side. By the time she was filmed getting down at a wedding, even Gawker had decided they liked her. Add to that the fact that she’s become something of a force behind the scenes, producing not only Wild but Gone Girl, another fall film with big awards aspirations. She could conceivably find herself on the Oscar ballot once in Best Actress and twice in Best Picture. (While we’re making bold predictions: Reese for EW’s Entertainer of the Year.) Honestly, she’s a much better Oscar “story” this year than she was in 2005 when she won.
Julianne Moore’s story isn’t bad either. If you were making a list of the best working actresses who have yet to win an Oscar, Moore’s name would have to be at the top of that list. Performances in Safe and Boogie Nights and The Hours have made her beloved among hardcore cinephiles and actress obsessives. It’s always been a bit tougher to tell how the Hollywood establishment (the Academy crowd) felt about her. They sure don’t hate her, having nominated her four times from 1997-2002. But she lost all four times, including in 2002 when her Far From Heaven performance had nearly swept the critics’ awards. She also came up short of a nomination in 2009 when her supporting performance in A Single Man had been campaigned. Still, “Look how great this particular Julianne Moore performance was” is a different animal than “Look how great this entire body of Julianne Moore performances have been,” and given what a hugely likeable presence she is, who wouldn’t want to vote for her?