“Short Cuts” (1993)
The movie that put Julianne Moore on the map (and got her noticed by Todd Haynes, who would cast her in her first lead role in “Safe”), “Short Cuts” is an ambitious Los Angeles-set odyssey with 22 different characters, though none make as bold of an impression as Moore’s Marian Wyman. Part of what makes this performance so great is Moore was a relatively unknown actress at the time of the film’s release, but even looking back at it now that Moore is a heavyweight of the industry, the performance still represents one of the boldest debuts in film history. Showing up most memorably in a three-minute scene full frontal, “Short Cuts” proved just how fearless the actress was. She could certainly shock us with her daring screen presence, but the level of acting (particularly the vivacious and saucy energy she brings to a pivotal argument) confirmed this wasn’t just a water cooler performance but one to take very seriously. “Short Cuts” found Moore announcing to the world that she was here to stay, and for that it will always be one of her best.
Todd Haynes’ remarkable second feature filters ’80s hyper-consumerism through the eyes of Carol White, played with unraveling nerve by Moore in what might just be her best performance of all time. Settled firmly in her uninspired marriage and her day-to-day housewife routine, Carol slowly develops an unusual illness she believes is an allergic reaction to chemicals found in everyday consumer products. Her doctors diagnose no such medical issue, but with each passing day, Carol’s symptoms get more violent and panic-stricken. The ambiguity over the cause of Carol’s deteriorating health — is it an actual disease or just her own self-delusional emotions? — creates a subversive psychological thriller, heightened by Moore’s unnerving turn in which she conjures up a level of shattering, dizzying paranoia that’s impossible to forget. She digs into the soul of Carol’s fears to expose a woman on the verge of a self-posessed nightmare, making “Safe” one of the most effective horror movies of all time.
“Boogie Nights” (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s classic ensemble drama chronicling the rise of a rookie porn star gets an added level of complexity thanks to Moore’s glamorous and conflicted Amber Waves, a veteran porn star who takes the young Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) under her wing. Moore first bares it all in some explicit sex scenes, but her nonchalant confidence and stylized glamour are a mere facade. As we learn more about Amber’s real life situation, her superstar aura becomes an egotistical shield from which she hides her role as a mother behind a rockstar lifestyle of sex, cocaine and lots of groovy partying. What’s continually impressive about Moore as a performer is her ability not to turn her flawed characters into tragic figures. Amber is hiding under layers of self-delusion, but Moore doesn’t want to turn her into a metaphor for fame’s dark underbelly; instead, the actress crafts a cautionary tale about double identities and speaks volumes to the internal battle between our star-studded fantasies and unremarkable realities.
“The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Few actors can go to such wild extremes with the level of precision as Moore does. Case in point: Her darkly funny role as Maude Lebowski, which easily proves how amazing she can be when she gives herself over to something as wacky and surreal as the Coen brothers’ singular vision. Sporting an accent you can’t quite place your finger on and a stiff bob, Moore brings a comic directness and surefire attitude to the character, a feminist artist who dabbles in the experimental and devotes her work to pieces that are “strongly vaginal.” Moore sends up the avant-garde persona as much as she finds convincing ways to explore its origins in her character, mainly the trouble she feels over her dysfunctional relationship with her parents. Whether she’s explaining why the “vagina” scares men or falling into bed with the Dude, Moore is a comic force, effortlessly adding to the film’s hazed-out, indecipherable trickery.
Moore is just one of the many actors who play a crucial role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling meditation on happiness, fate and forgiveness, and like the rest of her daring ensemble she’s given a few opportune moments to tear the lid off the joint and dig deep into feelings of rage, jealousy and self-loathing hate. Anderson doesn’t give us much backstory or exposition on the characters in the film, so we mostly know Moore’s Linda Partridge as a self-medicating wife in some kind of midlife crisis. Questioning her devotion to her husband, who she initially married for his money but has since come to love just as he is on his deathbed, Linda is crushed by the weight of her own actions, mainly her years of infidelity. One scene, in which Linda has an emotional freakout at the pharmacy while trying to by some pills, is a hall-of-fame Moore moment, showing the intensity, confusion and hysteria that only the actress seems capable of executing with so much uninhibited control.
“Far From Heaven” (2002)
Relishing in the atmosphere and stylizations of the great 1950s melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes finds the contemporary edge of a nostalgic era in the ravishing “Far From Heaven.” Moore stars opposite Dennis Quaid as Cathy Walker, a picturesque housewife whose family is undone by her husband’s closeted homosexuality and her own subversive yearnings for the black son of their late gardener. Framed between her own tight curls and hiding behind gorgeous scarfs, coats and red lipstick, Moore embodies the look and feel of a 1950s housewife wholeheartedly. While she starts off almost as a thinly-vieled parody of the archetype — she practicality oozes warmth and kind-heartedness in every glance — Moore floods her character with a questioning and curious subtext. Carol’s good-natured spirit would be a virtue in the 1950s, but Moore and Haynes slowly reveal the hurt, sorrow and confusion it can indirectly bring. The virtues that might have turned Carol into a saint in a Douglas Sirk film become the virtues that ultimately cause her strife, and Moore makes every realization of the fact an emotional blow to both her character and the female voice in melodrama.
“A Single Man” (2009)
Tom Ford’s emotionally arresting debut film doesn’t feature a whole lot of Julianne Moore, but the actress makes an indelible impression in one of the film’s most vital scenes. Moore plays Charley, the only friend of Colin Firth’s George, a depressed gay school teacher still grieving eight months after the tragic death of his lover. Like so many of the best Moore characters, Charley is a walking juxtaposition; her high society fashion and chic hair and makeup hide a lifetime of pain and sadness. Charley is clearly miserable, though Moore proves dynamic at exposing the profound ways we go about covering our own depression with bursts of happiness and feeling. When an evening of drinking and dancing leads to an unfulfilling kiss, Charley’s loneliness becomes a searing punctuation mark in a film about building and breaking relationships.
“Maps to the Stars” (2014)
Moore won the Academy Award last year for her devastating role in “Still Alice,” but there are some of us out there who maintain that her daring, go-for-broke, bat-shit-crazy work in David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire is an even better and impressively controlled performance that really deserved the prize. In a role that won her Best Actress at Cannes instead, Moore goes brattier and needier than ever as Havana Segrand, an aging actress trying to recapture her glory days by taking on a role first made famous by her late mother. Vigorously obsessed with fame and slowly but surely losing her sanity in the process, Moore sinks her teeth into the seediest, most despicable character of her career, creating an NC-17 version of Norma Desmond that walks the line between terrifying and hysterically wacky. In Moore’s hands, trashy camp becomes an act of true bravado, and for that we’ll always love Ms. Segrand.
“Still Alice” (2014)
Some cited Moore’s Oscar win for Best Actress as the Academy finally paying their dues for a career full of award-worthy performances, yet the actress’ turn in “Still Alice” is still a shockingly raw and impressive feat of its own accord. Moore is at the film’s center as Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Columbia University who is diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. Storylines based on life-ending diseases can be easy emotional manipulators, so part of what makes Moore’s performance so miraculous is how she rids the character of any trace of melodrama. We feel for Alice not because of her condition, but because of the way in which her condition forces her to come to terms with her life and her relationship with her family. As Moore succumbs to the disease, her performance takes on a devastating extreme that’s hard to distinguish the fiction from. Along with Emmanuel Riva in “Amour” and, currently, Cynthia Nixon in “Christopher Abbott,” Moore goes to the brink of life to inspire deep humanity in every viewer.