Being an early Oscar-frontrunner can be a blessing and a curse. There are those actors and actresses who took over the leading position right from the start and are able to maintain their momentum right until Academy Awards night. In 2006, Helen Mirren, Forrest Whittaker and Jennifer Hudson became three unstoppable forces during awards season and first scored with the critics, later with the industry awards and finally the Oscars. One year before, Reese Witherspoon and Philip Seymour Hoffman basically never had to remain seated during an awards ceremony and also collected a more than impressive share of critic awards. And during the 90s, Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson turned themselves into Oscar favorites from the moment the first awards were given out and expectedly held an Oscar in their hands various weeks later. Of course, there are also frontrunners that don’t emerge until the industry awards are handed out – the Best Actress race in 2010 was always considered to be between Annette Bening and Natalie Portman but when Natalie Portman swept the Golden Globes, the BAFTA, the SAG Award and the Critics Choice Award, the race was basically over. And a couple of years before, Annette Bening also was an early favorite for her work in Being Julia – only to watch Hilary Swank join the competition at the last minute and win the important industry awards and ultimately the Oscar. Everybody knew that Charlize Theron would easily win the Oscar for her work in Monster, but her status was never truly confirmed until she won at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. Halle Berry was always an also-run for the Best Actress Oscar but a last-minute win at the SAG Awards suddenly turned her into the frontrunner and ultimately the winner. And, of course, the Best Actress winner of 2002, Nicole Kidman, also did not play any part in the race for the critic awards that year and also had to face serious category confusion – her decision to compete in the leading category was seen by many as a death sentence for her Oscar hopes. But then, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs bestowed their accolades to her work as depressed and suicidal author Virginia Woolf and suddenly her win became inevitable. So, to come back to the first phrase – being an early Oscar-frontrunner can be a blessing and a curse. If everything fits together perfectly, this early frontrunner status can make an actor or actress unstoppable – but often enough, things don’t necessarily come together perfectly and for every Oscar winner that gained momentum during the industry awards, there has to be one (or more, depending on the diversity of the field) performer(s) who somehow lost their own momentum along the way. Sally Hawkins was the darling of the critics for her work in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky but while the Golden Globes also awarded her, the BAFTAs and the SAG Awards ignored her and the Oscars followed suit. Sissy Spacek seemed destined to win a second Oscar for her work as a grieving mother in In the Bedroom – apart from important critic awards, she also won the Golden Globe despite the fact that she was neither new nor young. Everything seemed to run smoothly for her but after Halle Berry won the SAG Award, her frontrunner status crumbled from one day to the other. Virginia Madsen and Thomas Hayden Church elegantly dominated the awards season for their work in Sideways but when it was time for the industry awards, new performers took home the trophies. It’s impossible to say when an early frontrunner will fall and how it happened – maybe expectations were too high, maybe memories of the voters are too short, maybe somebody else simply peaked at the right moment while somebody else peaked too early. Such a case surely happened in 2002. As just mentioned, Nicole Kidman did not attract too much attention at the beginning of the awards season but she picked up steam just at the right moment and peaked exactly when it was time for Academy members to fill out their ballots. And the one who peaked too early was Julianne Moore. After her stellar reviews for her work in Far from Heaven and first important wins in Los Angeles and at the National Board of Review, she seemed destined to sweep her way to the Oscar stage, especially since she also got extra attention for her work as a depressed housewife in The Hours in the same year. But it seems that her momentum never really took off – she kept winning a good deal of smaller awards but Diane Lane took some of her thunder when she won the other prestigious awards from New York and the National Society of Film Critics for her passionate and powerful work as a housewife caught between two men in the erotic thriller Unfaithful. And when the industry awards were coming up, Julianne Moore had basically turned into an ‘also-run’ as the race now focused on the eventual winner Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger as the singing murderess in the Best Picture winner Chicago. And on top of that, Julianne Moore had to face another blow as she became the third performer to lose two acting awards in one night when her performance in The Hours lost the Supporting Actress Oscar to Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. And so, what had seemed like Julianne Moore’s year a few months earlier, had become both a victim of bad timing as Academy members had directed their attention somewhere else by voting time and another example that very often quiet and subtle performances often have a disadvantage compared to more showy or transformative roles. In the end, it’s all over and done but it’s always interesting to see how frontrunners suddenly fall and also-runs suddenly become the favorites…
So, what about Julianne Moore’s performance as Cathy Whittaker, a happy and fulfilled housewife during the 50s whose life suddenly falls apart when she finds out that her husband is gay and she begins to develop romantic feelings for her African-American gardener? As mentioned just now, this is a very quiet and restrained performance, mirroring a woman who lives a quiet and almost obedient life and who has not only accepted the role that society has given to her but cherishes it with the utmost contentment. Therefore the character of Cathy Whittaker is one that already presents an actress with various challenges – the style of Far from Heaven demands a performance that is modern and old-fashioned, subtle and submissive, passive but not inconsiderable. And after seeing Far from Heaven, it seems impossible to imagine another actress in this part. Julianne Moore always seems to be most comfortable in her roles if she is playing a woman who is haunted by various ideas, wanting something she isn’t sure of herself yet and who is caught in a conventional environment. But she also needs to find the unconventional in her role – if her character is as unimaginative as its surroundings, she can easily get lost and her strange charisma be reduced to a pale imitation of itself. On the other hand, Julianne Moore is also able to go very far overboard with her emotions and her acting style often becomes uncomfortable in situations that demand that she turns her exterior into a vessel for the volcano that is hiding inside her characters. In those moments, she can be strangely over-the-top, using the full volume of her voice without finding an appropriate counterpart in her acting. But there is also the other Julianne Moore – the one that can express a lifetime of pain in her eyes, who can use her face and her voice to tell more about lost hopes, shattered dreams, illusions destroyed by reality and the longing for a life that that is as far away from her as heaven itself than pages of dialogue ever could. Barely any other actress can speak so much without saying anything at all or communicate her character’s most honest and felt emotions with only the slightest change of mood. And Cathy Whittaker is a woman who lives a life of quietness and happiness which will always cover any sort of discomfort or problems because the image of a perfect home, a perfect marriage and a perfect family shall not be destroyed. And so, Julianne Moore was able to turn her performance as Cathy Whittaker into the signature role of her career in which not only the acting style of the player and the character fitted together with perfect accordance but also allowed the player to add even more beyond this obvious match – Julianne Moore filled Cathy Whittaker with a spirit and intelligence that is complete and intertwines with each other without becoming a sum of parts. From her first moments on the screen, she knows how to display Cathy’s apparent simple-mindedness that slowly uncovers a woman who is slowly experiencing the world around her with more awareness – only to be crushed by the realities behind the facades that she, too, had helped to establish.
Far from Heaven is an overall concept – unlike Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whittaker, it actually is a sum of its parts. The movie is a stylized combination of exteriors like costumes, art direction, score and cinematography and of interiors like style, ideas and themes. It can easily be seen as a parody of the work by Douglas Sirk which, like no other, has created the tone of the melodrama of the 50s, filled with over-the-top colors, styles and performances. But if Far from Heaven shows the rifts in the perfect facades of those perfect little families in their perfect little houses with their perfect little gardens, the work of Douglas Sirk not necessarily showed anything else – alcoholism, sexual intrigues, lies, couples shunned by society all shape his work. More than anything, Far from Heaven seems rather like a general comment on a society bygone to ask how much has actually changed since then and uses its stylized approach and surface as a contrast to the reality and existence behind it. This combination of old-fashioned melodrama with a modern execution can be a disaster at worst, a masterpiece at best. Thankfully, Far from Heaven falls into the latter category. It’s a timeless story set in a very recognizable era, provoking, thoughtful, reflecting and ultimately heartbreaking – all of this in the single character of Cathy Whittaker and the single performance of Julianne Moore. The acting in Far from Heaven is, in some ways, just another part that creates the overall sum – but Julianne Moore’s central performance is the one single element that carries everything else, she as much reflects her stylized surroundings as she dominates it. And most of all, her performance combines the style of Far from Heaven perfectly – her performance finds the style of old-fashioned melodrama to the point that she seems to come out of a 50s soap commercial with a completely modern and natural acting style which allows her to find emotional and intellectual depth in a part that usually would only exist on the surface. In this way, her performance works in perfect harmony with Far from Heaven – her acting style shapes the style of the movie while the style of the movie shapes her acting style. So it is no surprise that Julianne Moore’s work in Far from Heaven is not only the signature role of her career but also a career-hight and, like the movie itself, a masterpiece in portraying a quiet and slowly developing desperation, caused by a society that neither could nor would understand.
In crafting Cathy Whittaker, Julianne Moore realized various levels of a woman who is finding her life turned upside down but also has certain ideas about herself and the people around her. Most importantly, she did not start her performance by portraying a woman who is hiding the usual hidden feelings and emotions inside – because these feelings and emotions don’t exist inside of her. Instead, Julianne Moore displays how much Cathy Whittaker has become a part of her surroundings – living in a world dominated by men and gossip, trying to be as perfect as humanly possible while making it all as normal as humanly possible, too. Cathy Whittaker never appears like an extraordinary or remarkable woman – instead, Julianne Moore portrays this perfection with a surprising amount of every-day commonness. In the hands of Julianne Moore, everything in Far from Heaven seems strangely normal – from the dialogue about perfect little children to the strange artificiality of the other characters to the overall tone and atmosphere of a world that seems too outlandish to be real. And so, Julianne Moore began her performance with the perfect combination of substance and emptiness: her Cathy never appears stupid, naïve or dumb – instead, she has simply fitted her personality and behavior to a role that she feels she has to fulfill. And Cathy Whittaker is also not an angel in this world – her behavior opposite her black maid is friendly but still shows a certain feeling of superiority in Cathy. She would never consider herself anything else than completely tolerant and open-minded but she would also never stop a racist conversation during one of her parties. She eagerly tells Raymond that she supports equal rights for Negroes without realizing how awkward she appears. She may fall in love with a black man but Julianne Moore clearly demonstrates that this is a single incident in the life of Cathy – as she says herself, she has no one left in the world she can talk to and Raymond’s kindness, warmth and gentle manner came to her in a time when she needed it most. When her husband accuses her of her relationship with Raymond, Julianne Moore lets Cathy raise her voice for the only time in Far from Heaven, a loud and almost misplaced refusal of his accusations which still works so perfectly because it shows how much Cathy still needs to deny any of those thoughts, to herself just as much as to anyone else.
But beyond the first impressions of Cathy, Julianne Moore also slowly developed the character of Cathy as she constantly begins to see beyond those peaceful surfaces as her life slowly falls apart. Apparently for the first time, she notices the gossip of the people around her, the problems of the people that live on the other side of the town and the superficiality of friendships that seemed to have been strong and true. And in this process, Julianne Moore becomes, no other words can describe it, absolutely heartbreaking. Barely any other performance is able to evoke such a sense of personal tragedy, of a life that is not harmed but almost seems wasted as opportunities and possibilities go by and only despair remains. When she drives around with Raymond, Julianne Moore clearly lets Cathy find the implications of this situation but she does not seem to be aware of what it truly means for her. She shows her constantly caught between the life she knows and the life she slowly discovers without ever making it appear grander than it really is – there is never a single doubt that Cathy would always chose her husband above everything else. When she goes with him to a doctor’s office to ‘cure him’, she shows that Cathy is doing the only thing she knows and the best she can think of – for him and for her. She always appears almost helpless in her character, displaying how much these changes in her life challenge her inner believes. And in her scenes opposite Dennis Haysbert, Julianne Moore delivers various scenes that are a constant display of quiet and private devastation that leave an almost harrowing impression. Her delivery of the line ‘You’re so beautiful’ contains an overwhelming amount of hope, desperation, regret and loneliness and lets Julianne Moore use her talents for subtle communication to the greatest results, just like a later scene when she quietly reacts to the news that her husband wants to leave her for a man. Far from Heaven is not kind to its three central characters – they all have to hide, disappear in unknown locations, fear the reactions of society. But Cathy’s fate leads to her to much more misery. Frank leaves her in the hope of finding personal happiness, even if it means to keep a life in secrecy. Raymond has to leave her because society cannot accept any relation between him and Cathy. But they can leave. Cathy is the one who stands behind, alone, deprived of her last companion. It’s the final message of Far from Heaven – men can choose, women have to accept. Twice, Cathy dares to go to Raymond, only to realize that her dreams will remain illusions. Julianne Moore’s wordless final scene at the train station is not only the highlight of the movie or her career but also one of the highlights of the Best Actress category. For a last time, Cathy wants to challenge her fate and the reality of her life – she can only hope that something will happen in this moment, unable to go beyond the steps she has taken. But reality triumphs again in this moment and Cathy can only watch as her hopes for happiness are leaving her life in this moment. In these scenes, Julianne Moore manages to become almost transparent, turning her inner grief into one of the most devastating moments this category has ever seen, draining all emotions and feelings from Cathy and the viewers.
With her performance, Julianne Moore not only became a perfect vessel for the style and theme of Far from Heaven but also defined this style and theme herself. Her acting style combined the artificiality of a world that never seemed to face reality with a modern honesty that is heartbreaking in its forlornness. Most impressively, Julianne Moore never felt affected by her stylized surroundings – her performance may be a part of this artificiality, but her work always feels real and grounded, carrying Far from Heaven and giving it true depth and substance beyond the style. Very few other performances could display such a world of hope and regret and for this, Julianne Moore gets