Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
We meet again, Miss Moore.
Congratulations are in order for Julianne Moore. On Sunday night, she won a well-deserved, and long-hoped-for Oscar for Still Alice. She brought infinite grace, humanity, and incredibly affable qualities to a person stuck in a dire situation, and Moore walked away from the movie with Best Actress at the Oscars, for what might be remembered as her seminal role — not to mention one of the surest bets in recent Oscar history.
But is it Moore’s best?
Moore’s had an exhaustively diverse career, with one uniting quality: She’s really, really good in everything she’s in, and everybody likes her. So, do we dare attempt to rank her works and offer up a top 10? Totally. Keep in mind, she’s so talented and casual, you can’t blame her when she’s taking pratfalls in stuff like Evolution. Or forced to feign interest in Nic Cage in Next. Or in Carrie 2013. She’s still terrific in her flops, so imagine our stress ranking her classics when there are so many. So, keeping that in mind, while some great films didn’t quite make the cut (The Kids Are All Right, Game Change, Short Cuts, Children of Men), we chose the movies that feature what we think is her truly best and most iconic work. We only have so much room for Moore.
10. Laura Brown
The Hours (2002)
Julianne Moore’s performance in The Hours might not be her most fulfilling work, but as one of her double nominations in 2002, it offers more than a peek at her ability to carry the weight of a layered and complex character. The film portrays the stories of three women spanning three generations, connected by a struggle and desire to understand the aspects of life that make it worth living, linked furthermore by the reflections read in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Moore plays Laura Brown, a pregnant 1950’s housewife with a young son who seems to know too much. Laura acts in her day-to-day life. She feigns happiness. Pretends this is the life that she wants. She has a doting husband whom she can’t truly love, due in no small part to the questions of her own sexual identity. Moore plays her with a slight coldness, measured by a growing distance that seems to build with her faltering ability to stay within this life, a life she equates to death. It’s an inner turmoil that she wears in her eyes when she thinks no one is watching. –Rebecca Bulnes
Moore’s Moment: This scene in particular feels like the crux of it all. It takes place after a crucial decision is made, and as she hides away in the bathroom, we experience her disparate worlds — the life of lies reinforced in the words to her husband and her own dismal truth held back through tears.
09. Clara Duvall
Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
Robert Altman’s 1999 offering, Cookie’s Fortune, is a strange gem of a film in which dark comedy, farce, and family drama overlap like the director’s trademark dialogue, and Julianne Moore is near-perfect as its confused moral left of center. Playing Clara, a spacey woman who is goaded into both covering up her Aunt Cookie’s (Patricia Neal) suicide and starring in the world’s worst community theater production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome by her conniving older sister Camille (Glenn Close), Moore is amusingly dimwitted without the film being cruel to her.
Imbued with the sense of humanity that Moore always manages to find in her characters, Clara and her simple-mindedness make for consistently funny yet never cruel caricature. Viewers don’t laugh at Clara because she’s stupid; they laugh because she’s just as absurd and odd as everything else about the film. They also laugh because she is a fantastically bad actress. When Clara finally takes the stage as Salome, Moore slips into what might well be the Platonic Ideal of an extremely talented actor playing an abysmal one. Her flat line-reading and uncoordinated dance of the seven veils are truly underrated moments in the history of film comedy. –Sarah Kurchak
Moore’s Moment: Clara and Camille descend into screaming madness upon discovery of their aunt’s body. Watching Moore and Close, two of the finest dramatic actresses of our time, descend into such silliness is a surprisingly satisfying treat.
08. Amber Waves
Boogie Nights (1997)
Julianne Moore makes her mark early in Boogie Nights, during the diner scene when director Jack Horner recruits young Eddie Adams into the adult film industry. As Horner coos and pontificates, the camera lingers on Moore’s Amber Waves, who watches Eddie with an eerie intensity that toes the line between motherly and sensual. In the next scene, a tender goodnight kiss makes manifest everything her eyes have been hinting at. It’s an almost impossible balance, that Freudian shit, but Moore tightropes it across every minute of the film’s two and a half hours.
One of Boogie Nights’ greatest strengths is the fearlessness of its ensemble, but, aside from maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s Moore who seems to be taking the biggest risks. Other characters (I’m looking at you, Reilly) mug their way through the adult films-within-the-film, but Moore plays it almost unbearably straight, as she takes Eddie’s (sorry, Dirk Diggler’s) onscreen virginity. Her moans, her grunts, the tender way she tells him where to blow his load — it’s positively raw. And a little bit squirmy. And all kinds of tragic, once you consider the film’s familial undertones. It’s the first time the Academy took notice, and we all knew it wouldn’t be the last. –Randall Colburn
Moore’s Moment: “Too many things. Too many things. Too many things. Too many things.”
07. Maude Lebowski
The Big Lebowski (1998)
In The Big Lebowski, The Dude is surrounded by loud, mean people: Walter, Jesus, and the Nihilists, not to mention The Big Lebowski himself. It’s no wonder then, that The Dude finds his match in the only other character to share his sense of cool. Sure, Maude is anything but laid-back. Her clipped, off-kilter intensity slices and dices Bridges’ drowsy whine, but her kaleidoscopic spirit lives and dies in the same blissful free fall as our hero.
Moore had her work cut out for her in Maude, a character that’s all too easy to pigeonhole in “pretentious artist” territory. She finds real pathos in Maude, eventually revealing, in a lovely round of toking, the kind of vulnerability that almost never emerges from our nation’s overachievers. And it’s here that we find the common ground between the two characters, the kind of people that no one would ever see together, even if just for a night.
What’s especially delightful, though, is how Moore doesn’t reject Maude’s pretensions, but exploits them for texture. The way she seems to float inside those unnecessarily over-sized garments is a masterwork of embodiment, and the conviction with which she describes her art is enough to make you believe that maybe Jackson Pollack was onto something. –Randall Colburn
Moore’s Moment: Her extended cackle with the snooty Knox Harrington (David Thewlis) is pure bliss, an echo of every moment you’ve ever felt alienated at a party. Especially an art kid party.
06. Sarah Miles
The End of the Affair (1999)
British novelist Graham Greene was excellent at exploring his leading men’s various crises of faith, but his secondary characters often became little more than moderately well-drawn catalysts for those men’s moments of agonizing realization. Greene’s 1951 novel, The End of the Affair, is definitely the story of Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes in the film), a man whose abruptly stalled and serendipitously rekindled affair with a married woman named Sarah (Moore) has a disastrous impact on his faith.
Unlike Greene’s novel, Neil Jordan’s 1999 adaptation is almost as much about Sarah’s own struggles with her God, though, and that’s largely due to Julianne Moore’s portrayal of her. Played with passion, intelligence, and barely concealed internal conflict, Moore’s Sarah is never at risk of becoming a cypher. She even manages to sell the hell out of some of the movie’s more questionable dialogue (“I had tempted fate, and fate had accepted”). The film itself polarized critics when it was released. Its detractors dismissed it as overblown melodrama. Its proponents hailed it as engrossing, thoughtful, and witty. Both camps called it old-fashioned.
But Moore’s performance received almost universal praise. The role was equally popular when award season rolled around, earning Moore acting nods at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs and her second Academy Award nomination (her first for Best Actress). –Sarah Kurchak
Moore’s Moment: “You think love ends just because we don’t see each other?” is a borderline sappy sentiment that you might find in a mid-level greeting card (and is framed as such in the film’s trailer), but when Moore’s Sarah says it, it actually sounds deeply emotional and profound.
A Single Man (2009)
Tom Ford’s 2009 film debut, A Single Man, is easily one of the handsomest films made in recent memory. It intimately captures the life of George, played by Colin Firth, a homosexual English professor grieving the death of his lover in 1960s Los Angeles. Battling with his own fragile psyche, he contemplates suicide while struggling to go through his day-to-day life seemingly unscathed. Julianne Moore plays Charley, the counterpart to his attempt at a heterosexual affair. They are both broken but pretend not to be.
Charley drowns her sorrows in gin. She projects an air of contentment, though her despondence is deeply rooted and unwavering. Charley is breathy and beautiful, she seems to occasionally move in slow motion, like a caricature of someone you once knew. She is played with an effortless combination of sensuality and quiet desperation. Moore does that magical thing where her eyes feel so sad that we can see her longing for love despite the casual smile on her face. When she dances, she moves seductively with Firth, though she knows their love can never be what she desires. It’s an agonizing reality that is carried in every moment of Moore’s expertly crafted and subtle performance, which makes her a standout even in a supporting role. It’s an underrated gem. –Rebecca Bulnes
Moore’s Moment: This clip shows her ability to play the character with so much life and, at the same time, so much silent yearning. She seems to hold George a little too close.
04. Linda Partridge
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is a masterpiece ensemble film. It’s a 24-hour collage of stories that skillfully intersects characters, each plagued by something poignant: a dark sense of loneliness, regret, an inability to detach from the past. They are engrossed in the complications of their own lives, naive to the intricate workings of an outside world that makes itself known through strange coincidence.
Moore plays Linda, the younger wife of Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is strapped to his deathbed, withering away. Marrying him for his money, one nervous breakdown after another, she begins to love him for the first time. Her regret pummels down on her, hard. The camera revels in long shots of Moore’s every twitch and stutter as she stumbles through breathless words, trying impossibly to right her every wrong. Moore makes the erratic nature of Linda become something much more than a character, but rather a tangible person who feels and, in turn, makes the viewer do the same. P.T. Anderson wrote the part for her, and she fulfills it to the last page in a near-perfect performance. –Rebecca Bulnes
Moore’s Moment: In this standout scene, we see her reach every level of remorse as she speaks to their lawyer about wanting nothing from her husband’s will. Never has “Shut the fuck up” been said with such lasting potency.
03. Dr. Alice Howland
Still Alice (2014)
The very concept of early onset Alzheimer’s is terrifying beyond belief. Imagine, being in one’s prime and then uncontrollably losing all of your mental framing. The body’s intact, yet the mind starts to lose sense of what’s happening. First words, then where things are, then eventually you degrade to a point of complete unawareness. You suddenly wake up, unaware, in a Pinkberry with someone you vaguely remember as your husband, smiling politely. Or worse, you wake up surprised that your daughter is giving birth, seemingly out of nowhere. You become a sort of living dead person.
Julianne Moore took on an enormous challenge in portraying someone who is afflicted by that very illness. It requires a careful tone of voice, not to mention needed accuracy and honesty. Overplay it, and you’re accused of exploitation. Underplay it, and you miss the opportunity to apprise people of a real and traumatic disease.
However, this is Julianne Moore, one of the most nimble actresses of our time, and she took on the role of Alice Howland, the fading linguistics professor, with perfection. She showed a woman of fierce intelligence and independence battling something beyond her control, and it struck a chord. Moore elevates Still Alice, which could have been a medical pamphlet movie, and makes it about genuine struggle. There’s something very human and bittersweet about this person, and Moore gets it. She’s Alice, for better and worse. Through Alice’s extended descent, Moore made audiences love and appreciate the beauty of life. It’s a role only Moore could play.
After five Oscar nominations over 16 years, Moore just won the Best Actress Academy Award for this. She earned it. –Blake Goble
Moore’s Moment: The final scene, so, given the limited distribution and hopeful expansion post-Oscar, uh, spoiler alert:
“Love. Yeah. Love.”
Great. Here come the waterworks.
02. Carol White
Safe was a declaration for Julianne Moore.
Here is Julianne Moore. You may recognize her from Short Cuts, or The Fugitive, but you’re definitely going to remember her name after this.
In Todd Hayne’s domestic, pandemic thriller, Moore was Carol White, the emotionally depleted San Fernando housewife who begins to develop Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. MCS was a real-life controversial diagnosis for multiple, seemingly unrelated symptoms thought brought on by any cocktail of household items. Think of a navel-gazing, more realistic Cronenberg film, as Haynes tortures Carol with coughing fits, nervous breakdowns, vomiting, convulsions, holistic health, demeaning medical testing, and a now-iconic nosebleed after a perm. This was a breakout for Moore, as she pushed herself beyond belief as the bodily embattled White. You see and feel her pain as she suffers and tries to make sense of just what’s happening to her. It’s brutal and yet familiar. Who knows what bodily harm lurks within everyday items? What really makes us sick? What is wrong with us now? Are we just being big babies? How do we alienate ourselves? How does modern society alienate women? How much sadness, and pain, must Carol feel? Does anyone care for her? It’s excruciating for any real person to experience, let alone have an actor convey with dignity and daring. But Moore marches on.
We’re left riveted and haunted by Carol. But, most impressively, we feel pity and sorrow for this woman. In a performance the actress herself has described as “excruciatingly alone,” Moore was fearless taking her body to just the most awful places, trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong with her. –Blake Goble
Moore’s Moment: While the perm scene is cult-classic lore, Carol’s truly awkward speech at a new age retreat drives home the fact that she is all by herself in this struggle, and she is a sad, lonely person. It’s Moore at her most fragile and powerful.
01. Cathy Whitaker
Far From Heaven (2002)
Cathy Whitaker is a role that many actresses would die for, but could just as easily and passionately screw up. A straight-faced homage to Douglas Sirk about a 1950s Connecticut housewife coming to terms with both her husband’s repressed homosexuality and her feelings toward her African American gardener, Far from Heaven could have easily veered into camp as an esoteric montage. And yet, Julianne Moore, as a wife in emotional loss and limbo, is the beating, timeless heart of a timed tale.
Moore not only makes you believe in this woman’s struggle, but she is beautiful and brave. It’s a balancing act. Moore doesn’t give the role an edgy modern awareness, nor does she condescend to the period with “gee whiz golly shucks” fervor. She’s a woman, trying the very best that she can to make sense of things, and she does it all with such grace and pride and honesty. In a career of fantastic work, Far from Heaven gave Moore her quietest, and yet her richest, performance to date. She really needs to hang out with Todd Haynes more, come to think of it. As Cathy Whitaker, she’s not a woman scorned or in a catatonic state of confusion. Moore gives Whitaker deep feelings. Using her natural talents, Moore gives the gift of a performance made up of complete emotional understanding for the character she’s portraying.
Far from Heaven is a nostalgic tour de force of heartbreak, of real love that couldn’t exist in the time of its setting, and it’s all thanks to Moore’s work. It gave Moore a deserved Oscar nomination, but she didn’t take the prize in 2002 (perhaps her similarly domestic work in The Hours that year knocked this out of the running), but it’s the stuff of master-class acting lessons. The stuff only great actors like Julianne Moore can accomplish. –Blake Goble
Moore’s Moment: In a startling, stark moment of quiet, even progressive solemnity, Cathy matter-of-factly listens to her quivering husband admit his desire to leave Cathy, and she simply asks the painful, but right question. It’s a scene of such enormous power, not because of the end of a marriage, but for its brutal realization. Moore’s not interested in giving a showy performance. She doesn’t smash lamps, or scream at her hubby, or accuse him of anything, or even seem to feel betrayal. It’s something more complicated and nuanced, and well, dramatically perfect. This is Moore’s finest hour.
“So I assume, then … you’ll be wanting a divorce?”