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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

entry arrow7:18 PM | The Slow Decay of Brilliant People

In a pair of 2014 films I've recently watched featuring what most "pundits" are predicting to be front-runners for the lead acting trophies in the current Oscar race, I found a connection in disease: Julianne Moore and Alzheimer's in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Still Alice and Eddie Redmayne and ALS in James Marsh's The Theory of Everything.

Then again, what's new? Oscar attention has been traditionally lavish on the depiction of beautiful and heroic suffering through disease, physical or mental. It is a useless exercise to enumerate the evidence, but -- quickly now -- there's Daniel Day-Lewis' painter with cerebral palsy in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989), and there's Russell Crowe's mathematician with mental illness in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001), and there's Geoffrey Rush's pianist also with mental illness in Scott Hicks' Shine (1996). Most recently, there's Matthew McConaughey's AIDS-addled drug activist in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club (2013). All these men have won Best Actor in the generous company of other men whose award-winning depictions of characters suffer from other ailments. There's gold, apparently, in suffering -- although comedy is harder.

Amazingly enough, the trend is less likely to occur for Best Actress winners -- with mental breakdown/illness seemingly the common denominator in the list, as in Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence, Black Swan's Natalie Portman, Monster's Charlize Theron, The Hours' Nicole Kidman, Blue Sky's Jessica Lange, Misery's Kathy Bates, and The Three Faces of Eve's Joanne Woodward. Of the nominees, we remember the most the glowing demise of Debra Winger in both Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, Meryl Streep in One True Thing, and notoriously, Ali MacGraw in Love Story. Only Emmanuelle Riva's dementia in Amour and Ellen Burstyn's drug addiction in Requiem for a Dream seemed truly horrific in the lot -- nothing beautiful at all in their suffering, which might have been too painful for Oscar voters to consider.

I liked Still Alice and The Theory of Everything, but of the two, the former seemed more humanly invested in tracking true frailty in the face of physical degeneration -- which is surprising, considering the fictionality of Still Alice as opposed to the true-to-life chronicle of Theory.

But Julianne Moore is absolutely devastating as a brilliant and pathbreaking linguistics professor who gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She brings an uncanny subtlety to the role that makes us see more her character's quiet engagement with disease rather than a showy performance that becomes a mere checklist of dramatised symptoms. Her slow descent to forgetfulness becomes even more terrifying, and yet still remain incredibly human. That scene where she forgets where the bathroom is in their house, for example, has a sharp unsettling sense of familiarity to it, as if to underline the fact that this could happen to anyone, to us. And the whole sequence where she gives a speech, and wields a yellow marker to battle the seemingly random and sudden erasures in her memory is fraught with so much tension, and so much warmth, that we vacillate between being moved by terror or by well-earned sentimentality. Ms. Moore, in this role, deserves the Oscar everybody believes she is due for.

Eddie Redmayne's depiction of the great Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, also seems equally brave. And by the looks of it, doing it seemed technically difficult -- hence the whole performance easily becomes an effort in actorly bravura. But there's a sense about the film that makes it too much like a color-by-number exercise in Oscar-baiting biography, and that safe and almost predictable earnestness somehow undermines the performances of both Mr. Redmayne and Felicity Jones who plays Mrs. Hawking. Marsh's film -- unlike his superb Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) -- just did not draw me in as much as I'd like to, although a lot of it is very much admired.

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