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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wild and Still Alice: Bad Movies With Great Female Performances

I recently wrote an article about The Pervasive Culture of Sexism Among Hollywood and The Academy. The purpose of that article was to highlight the continuing problem that Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees tend to come from, well to put it bluntly, boring and bad movies. Being the Oscar completionist that I am, I tend to watch as many movies as I can (while still working a 9-5 job). However, that becomes a difficult task when I need to use my free time wisely and cherry pick what I think will be the best movies. That tends to cause me to miss these films with great female performances in them because these films are not considered good and therefore they drop on my theoretical queue. There are most certainly bad and boring films with great male performances in them, but they tend to be films like Foxcatcher, and thanks to the patriarchal society of Awards Ceremonies, still get nominated for other major awards. However, this year I was able to watch four of the performances in both the Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress category. Two of those films were Still Alice (Julianne Moore was nominated for Best Actress) and Wild (Reese Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress and Laura Dern was nominated for Best Supporting Actress). Both Still Alice and Wild follow along this trend of bad and boring movies with great female performances in them. Unfortunately, that still means at the end of the day I'm watching a bad and boring movie- which I strongly dislike. You don't want to watch an entire TV season of a show you don't like or read a book you're not enjoying. 

By nominating Reese Witherspoon and Julianne Moore, The Academy has created a perpetual cycle with more bad movies to come. As Filmdrunk puts it: 

"Yes awards are bullshit. Despite this, this they still matter. Maybe not you, maybe not to me, but in terms of which movies get made, awards matter because they matter to actors. And because awards matter to actors, awards affect actors' choice of projects. Which affects which movies get made, which affects which movies we see. Put simply, a lot of bad movies wouldn't get made if A-list and up-and-coming actors weren't jumping aboard solely for the chance to win awards. To say nothing of the more interesting scripts and novel approaches to material that get shoehorned into predictable awards vehicles in the hopes of pleasing predictable awards voters."

It is this very reason that Wild was made. Although Reese Witherspoon already has her Oscar statute, she is in a new phase of her career where she's trying to be risky and trying new things. She was great in her small role in Mud (and similar to the film's star, Witherspoon is having her own McConaissance), she co-starred in P.T. Anderson's new film Inherent Vice, and she's now started producing films as well. Witherspoon was one of the producers of David Fincher's Gone Girl (and probably expected an Oscar nomination to come from that), and Witherspoon also was a producer on Wild. She is single-handedly responsible for the film's existence. Witherspoon bought the rights to the book in which Wild was based off of, she hand-picked director Jean-Marc Vallee (who just helped Matthew McConaughey and Jered Leto win Oscars for their work in Dallas Buyers Club) and she stars in the project herself. I'm sure Witherspoon got really excited at the prospect of earning three Academy Award Nominations this year.

Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trial, basically she starts at California down by Mexico and hikes all the way up to Canada. After a tragedy strikes Cheryl, she must confront her own demons by going on this three month journey. Witherspoon is in almost every frame of this movie sans a few flashbacks and she's very good as she struggles not only to survive but to live with herself. 

Cheryl does end meeting some interesting people along the way on her journey and there are moments of real tension as Strayed is a young women on her own encountering strange men who she has every right to assume will assault her. But overall, Wild is just straight up boring. I can see how some people might find Cheryl Strayed relatable, but I wasn't one of those people. Maybe I've lived too privileged of a lifestyle, but throughout most of Wild I kept looking to see how much time was left until the movie would end. This is the type of movie that's character driven and is not supposed to be plot driven and I enjoy those types of films immensely when they're done right and the film forces me to empathize with the main character. However, in the case of Wild, I didn't care too much about what was going to happen to Cheryl nor was I entertained by her journey. It didn't help that I had in the back of my mind, "The only reason this film exists is so that Witherspoon gets a Best Actress Oscar." What's even worse is that I thought Witherspoon was fine but not jaw-dropping amazing. Then again, Witherspoon doesn't need to impress me, I don't have an Oscar vote. She was probably following Roger Ebert's "How To Win An Academy Award' advice. He writes:

The Academy Award winner for Best Actress always goes to a performance for whom gender and/or sexuality is a major part of the character's story. If you remove the sexuality aspect or the importance given to gender in the character's narrative, then you will fundamentally change the character.

Considering after the traumatic event happened to Cheryl, she spiraled into a depression doing heroin and having sex with any guy who would look at her. If what Roger Ebert said is true then out of the five nominees, Witherspoon should be favorite. Unfortunately for her, Julianne Moore for her work in Still Alice is the the current front runner to win the Best Actress Academy Award. Not only did Moore beat out Witherspoon at the Golden Globes earlier this year, but she gave the best acting performance of 2014

Still Alice stars Julianne Moore as a distinguished linguistics professor at the pinnacle of her career who discovers that she has a rare hereditary disease that causes her to develop Alzheimer's in her early 50's. She is supported by her husband, played by Alec Baldwin, and her three children, mainly her youngest played by Kristen Stewart. The film follows Alice as she attempts to live her everyday New York lifestyle while her disease gets progressively worse- and anyone who knows or ever knew anyone who had Alzheimer's is fully aware, it's not pretty.

Still Alice is slightly different than Wild in the sense that it doesn't seemingly exist solely for Julianne Moore to get an Oscar nomination. Still Alice has a purpose and a concrete story throughout- albeit that structure is seeing Moore's Alice Howland solely deteriorate. Whereas Wild is a vehicle solely to show off Reese Witherspoon's performance, Still Alice is at least exists to show the effects of Alzheimer's Disease on a person and has a broader point and also just so happens to have an amazing performance by a female actress. 

However, Still Alice as a whole is very difficult to get through. It's basically spending two hours with someone as they progress through the entire cycle of a terrible disease- and it's for that reason that I can't recommend anyone watch the film. It's neither catharsis for anyone who's had a close loved one suffer from Alzheimer's nor does it shed new light on the disease because I can't imagine anyone in 2015 isn't familiar with the awfulness of this illness. The film is basically: "this is what it's like to watch someone suffer from Alzheimer's Disease and it's really fucking horrible". 

At the end of the day, I would not recommend either Still Alice or Wild to anyone. Both movies may have a performance that deserves an Academy Award nomination from their lead actress, but both movies and boring as hell to watch. If the Academy Awards didn't exist, both Wild and Still Alice would be films that wouldn't even register in the zeitgeist. In fact, they probably wouldn't exist. I'm not saying Reese Witherspoon and Julianne Moore don't deserve praise, but what I am saying is that I wish they gave these performances in a film that was also enjoyable to watch. I shouldn't have to sit through a movie I don't want to watch just to watch a great female performance. There's no reason I can't both watch a great female performance AND a great movie.



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