Every cinephile of my generation—that black hole between Gen-X and Millennial—has probably fallen in love with Julianne Moore at some point in their life. For me, it happened when I first watched Boogie Nights and vowed to track down every role the actress had appeared in. I didn’t have to dwell too much on Moore’s pre-Boogie Nights roles—she blew up during the late ’90s and soon became known as one of the most versatile and captivating stars of her generation, with four Oscar nominations and one win under her belt. (Moore was already a star in spirit during the early ’90s; Hollywood just had to catch up.) One foot in the glamour of old Hollywood, another in the fearless, edgier confines of modern cinema, Moore is one of those rare talents who not only aces whatever role she tackles, but almost always brings something new and unexpected to the part. So, in honor of her upcoming lead role in Gloria Bell, a new romance/dramedy from director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), let’s dig into the top 10 Julianne Moore performances.
It’s a bit of a shame that Moore’s short but impactful role in Robert Altman’s ensemble drama tribute to Los Angeles’ trademark batshittery is mostly known for her infamous bottom-half nudity during an explosive monologue. The nudity wasn’t a feature, but an important detail: When Moore’s painter, frustrated with her lifeless marriage, finally reveals her feelings to her husband (Matthew Modine) while also admitting to having an affair, she’s so caught up with the geyser of pent-up emotions bottled up over years that she barely recognizes that she’s half naked. Like Richard Linklater showed in Before Midnight, Altman casually displays how real married couples can easily engage in arguments while naked, and Moore’s fearlessness allows us to take that in and focus on her performance. Her character’s outward passion, followed by her immediate switch to polite normalcy on the arrival of the couple’s dinner guests (Fred Ward and Anne Archer), also presents an early example of her range.
With simple mannerisms and energy, Moore can create full-fledged and lived-in characters with even the smallest roles. This makes her invaluable when it comes to casting supporting parts that might not have the longest screen time, but are vital in establishing the arc of the protagonist or the themes and tone of the narrative. That’s precisely the case in Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian sci-fi masterpiece. As Julian, the activist ex-wife of Clive Owen’s apathetic Theo, her character is essential in bringing the protagonist back to a semblance of humanity. The role mostly consists of Julian delivering procedural exposition about the activists’ secret mission, with very little outward emotional content. Yet Moore can convey an ocean of context with a simple look.
Moore’s comedy roles are mostly based on her deadpan approach to even the silliest material. Nowhere is this more on display that Maude Lebowski, the entirely humorless and self-serious modern artist in the Coen Brothers’ Philip-Marlowe-on-pot cult classic. With her geographically vague trust fund brat accent and her ability to not bat an eye when openly discussing her sexually charged art, as well as her mother-in-law’s adventures in hard-core porn, Maude becomes a more giggle-inducing character the more seriously she takes herself. To this day, I can’t hear the words “vagina” and “johnson” without a hint of her accent and tone.
Co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s breakthrough dramedy explores how romance and lust can catch up to anyone when it’s least expected. As Jules, one half of a same-sex couple who begins an impromptu affair with the biological father (Mark Ruffalo) of her children, Moore finds a succinct balance between the heightened, borderline screwball comedy of errors, and the heartfelt inner conflict of a woman who clearly still loves her wife (Annette Bening) but needs something more out of life. The film pulls off its tonal shift into more dramatic territory during the third act partly thanks to Moore’s complex performance.
If we consider the characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic tale about the American dream as told through the ’70s and ’80s porn industry as a tight-knit family drama, then Moore’s porn star is certainly the caring and loving mother of the ensemble. Anderson’s ’90s output is full of characters who, in the words of William H. Macy’s character in Magnolia, “have a lot of love to give, but don’t know where to put it.” Unable to see her son because of her profession, Moore’s Amber is always on the lookout for a new surrogate onto whom to project her maternal needs, be it Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler or Heather Graham’s Rollergirl. As the ugly conservative head of the ’80s presents itself, Amber’s sadness and desperation takes center stage, and Moore’s dedication to the role empowers every step of the character’s transformation.
Moore reteams with PTA with yet another ensemble drama, this time as the remorseful gold-digging wife of a dying, rich TV producer (Jason Robards) in Anderson’s biblical allegory-driven tribute to Altman’s Short Cuts. Moore, who possesses a distinct ability to find compassion and relatable pity in deeply flawed characters, knocks it out of the park as a woman who has led a narcissistic existence and is suffering from a nervous breakdown because of her last-ditch attempt at finding redemption during her husband’s final days (and tormented by the knowledge it might be too late). The fire-and-brimstone monologue she unloads on a douchebag pharmacy clerk who makes fun of her prescription full of party drugs is one of the shining moments of her illustrious career.
Religious faith is usually stamped on us when we are children, so it’s always interesting to follow the story of a character who switches from being spiritually skeptical to a true believer during their adult years. In director Neil Jordan’s subtle treatise on faith disguised as a World War II romance/melodrama, Moore plays an unhappily married woman who enters a rollercoaster affair with Ralph Fiennes’ novelist, only to regain her faith after a “miracle” shows her a new path in life. Jordan’s not interested in judging the character’s lustful actions, nor does he want to show piety in her latter years. In fact, Sarah manages to show more regret and confusion when she becomes more attached to her faith. That’s a very hard balancing act, and Moore makes it look effortless.
Writer-director Todd Haynes’ Safe is a slight allegory on the early ’80s AIDS panic when no one could figure out the specific destructiveness of the disease. Haynes reframes its themes through a protagonist least connected to that subject matter: an affluent, straight, suburban homemaker whose life breaks apart due to an illness that no doctor can clearly diagnose. When we first meet Moore’s Carol, we already know she’s putting on a smile to cover up her loveless marriage—a pattern in Moore’s career, for some reason—but that veneer of bland but safe normalcy comes crashing down as her mysterious disease gets worse. Likely well aware of Moore’s ability to communicate complex emotions through body language alone, Haynes sticks mostly to long shots that not only manage to emphasize Carol’s increasing isolation, but also takes full advantage of Moore’s capacity for emotional heft in the most quiet and passive moments.
The part that finally got Moore her Oscar is a deeply compassionate look at someone gradually succumbing to a debilitating disease, all the while struggling to maintain a modicum of their former lives while acclimating themselves to their new normal. The heartbreaking story of a linguistics professor (Moore) coming to terms with her early-onset Alzheimer’s came from a personal place for the filmmakers: Richard Glatzer, one of the directors, suffered from ALS and passed away soon after the film’s release. That’s perhaps why the film forms a direct, relatable emotional link to Moore’s character. Moore then takes this personal pain and creates a performance that’s heartfelt and bittersweet.
Moore certainly has an Old Hollywood presence that conveys not only the glitz and glamour of the era’s stars, but also the melancholic presence hiding beneath. That’s why her turn as a housewife who finds solace in her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) after finding out that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay is the ultimate Julianne Moore performance. Director Todd Haynes, working with Moore again after Safe, pushes his Douglas Sirk melodrama tribute to the max, employing Sirk’s tone and the opulent Technicolor look of the era, right down to the style of the credits. This creates a time portal for Moore, as she possesses the soul of her mid-20th Century doppelgänger, the illustrious Deborah Kerr, who also played her part in the 1955 version of The End of The Affair. Here is a powerhouse of a performance that follows in the footsteps of old school melodrama, a showcase for Moore’s strengths as an actress.