Choosing a best role for Julianne Moore is tantamount to claiming a preference between two almost identical shades of the same color. Her roles and talents are always stellar. Even in the lightest and most questionable fare, it's easy to appreciate her skill, right down to her first big role as Franny in As the World Turns. However, her talents don't wallop you like a sledgehammer. Rather, they exist subtly, often at their strongest when she reveals little -- silence and somber faces revealing just as much as tears or screams.
When I first decided to tackle Moore's films, I figured it would be a daunting task where no matter what I picked, no one would agree. Just take a look back at her roster. Her big screen work began with fluff fare and side roles in films like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Benny & Joon. But as soon as she co-starred in The Fugitive, her career swiftly began to change. Short Cuts followed that same year, but it was 1995's Safe, with Todd Haynes, that Moore made her mark as a compelling and notable actress.
The next year brought a wonderful turn as one of Pablo's loves in Surviving Picasso, and then came the role that truly solidified Moore's name in the public consciousness -- Boogie Nights. By the late '90s, the world was her oyster, from the lows of reviving Lila Crane in Psycho, to the heart of The End of the Affair, the woe of The Hours, and the horror of the future with recent features Children of Men and Blindness.
But the role that truly stands out is her second feature with Todd Haynes, 2002's Far From Heaven. While many of her roles are great, no one behind the camera understands how to manipulate and enhance her talents like Haynes. It's funny. By picking this film, I wrongly assumed I was in the minority, until I looked at her film list on WIkipedia. Many of her roles have nominations and wins in the "Notes" column of her filmography, especially for gigs like Amber Waves in Boogie Nights. But nothing compares to the love she received for her turn as Cathy Whitaker. Moore earned nineteen award wins, plus further nominations from the Academy, Empire, Golden Globes, Satellites, and SAG. These awards came with good reason.
At first, Moore's Whitaker seems like a shell of a character, the type of performance offered by a lesser actor. But it's actually spot-on for a woman whose entire existence relies on playing a part. Cathy can offer the warm smile and social niceties, but there's no heart behind it, no humanity because she doesn't let herself feel. A picture-perfect caricature, Cathy fends off the woes of the real world by clutching to her '50s facade. If she's the perfect housewife who keeps her house spotless, entertains fellow housewives, and keeps up appearances for the local paper's gossip pages, she won't have to face the enormous divide between her and her husband, and the humanity she locks deep within herself.
But as Cathy learns that her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is gay, and finds herself drawn to the kindness and conversation of Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), Cathy becomes a real person, and not just a picture. Slowly, personality and preferences bubble out of Moore as Cathy finds her voice. At first, it's reserved, with nothing more than a carefully asked question or inquisitive look. But soon, Cathy's self rushes out, forcing her to face the many false and dirty aspects of the life she has championed -- the racism and sexism, the derision placed on her though she continues to live the ideals she thought she lived before.
But even when she unleashes her true self, Cathy is still restrained. All too often, a character's conversion exists in extremes. With Moore's '50s housewife, Cathy is still Cathy -- she's just a warmer, more flushed out version. Her dalliance with Raymond isn't some hot and steamy affair, but something perfectly fitting to her own beliefs. Dancing is their raciest activity. For the most part, she just wants to express herself, to have a friend that she can be herself with -- use her mind, think, and not have to tiptoe around holes of weakness and woe. On page, her transformation is nothing more than a few conversations and a heap of controversy, but Moore gives it the humanity that makes the transformation profound. (And at the same time, utterly up in the air as the film closes.)
While many of Moore's roles rule, nothing showcases her talents like being Far From Heaven with Todd Haynes.