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A "Game Change" for Julianne Moore

When celebrities play celebrities, the anticipation is half of the buzz.

Will they nail the voice? Will they smile and move like the other famous person? If other celebrities have played this celebrity will they surpass previous incarnations? Will the transformation be all surface or will it dig deep? Can anyone notice the difference since all high profile biopics win acting kudos? How many reviews will work some variation on "________ IS _________ !!!" as the reviewer falls under the actor's spell?

Since most famous actors who are cast in biopics can act, they usually succeed at their impersonations and we move from "will they?" regarding the performance to "will they?" regarding awards wins. In both cases the answer is generally "yes". For reasons The Film Experience has never quite pinned down, these metamorphoses surprise the world each time as if we've never seen their like. Occasionally we even doubt the answer to the first "will they?"

But for all the familiarity of this showbiz narrative, in Julianne Moore's case Game Change may actually be a game change. Her work as Sarah Palin was one of the true nail biters in the realm of modern biographical star turns and here's why...

The bulk of the actress's most acclaimed performances have been original creations or literary adaptations where she had to perform entire souls for us using only her imagination and the director and/or writer's vision. She's one of those magical actors that excels at interior headspace but is also able to alchemize theme. Though it's absurd to say this truth out loud, these are not valued skills when it comes time to name "Bests". 

Biographical work is not Moore's usual milieu though she's done a few where she's played relatively fame-free women (The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio, Freedomland) Rarely has she been asked to replicate a familiar performance with her performance -- the favorite acting trick of every major awards body -- which is probably why the trophies have been scarce. She's won critics prizes, festival gongs and even a daytime Emmy before the world knew her name but the big game has always eluded her: No Oscar, no Emmy, no Golden Globe, no Tony, no SAG, ...not even a CCMA.

The biggest surprise within Game Change which debuted last night on HBO was not in Julianne's fine success in a great role -- as despicable as Sarah Palin's ignorance and politics are, she is emblematic of so much about our culture that she remains fascinating -- but rather that Moore's Palin was virtually the entire show. Perhaps I hadn't read enough about the production but I expected a wider net to be cast. Every time she was offscreen the telefilm lost momentum, particularly during its final third. This is not to say that the other actors weren't fine. Ed Harris's John McCain seemed too acted in the first few minutes but he settled in well, once he no longer had the narrative to shoulder. Woody Harrelson and particularly Sarah Paulson did fine variations on exasperated campaign advisors who thought they'd found a tax-exempt buried treasure only to realize it was cursed and the price was high. 

Though Julianne perfects Sarah Palin's annoying adenoidal voice and frozen grimaces, more impressive is her ability to make Palin's impossibly winding runaway thought trains feel like both desperate grabs to find tracks and just the way she thinks (or doesn't) and also both at once. Though the voice was key to selling the performance and its eventual awards pull, the most compelling aspect is its silences. Sarah uses the silence like a weapon against the campaign team she grows to despise but Julianne lets those cells divide. The actress empties herself out in these moments so it's not just the childish silent treatment she's performing or even a natural retreat. It's also a close up of a mind with an uncanny ability to shut itself down, allowing no new information to penetrate. Julianne's often excelled at psychotic breaks onscreen so though you might expect more traditional fireworks as Palin beings to break down, I myself was merely thankful to be a touch (just a touch) surprised at how the performance played out.

The riskiest beat in the performance is a moment when she mutes the typical Palinistic cadences and vocal timbre towards the tail end of this threat.

If I am single handedly carrying this campaign, I'm gonna do what I want."

It came with an electric charge but it also risks throwing you outside the impersonation for an errant thought: how much acting is going on with every public figure?

I felt my jaw clenching tight like Sarah Palin's watching Julianne work her psychological magic in Game Change but I should have known that she would succeed, even within the mimicry. I mean, there's never been a more authentic-feeling replication of bad movie acting encased within brilliant acting than her Amber Waves in Boogie Nights has there? Amber Waves was only one of the greatest screen performances of the past quarter century but since it was an original character and Moore was still a "new" actress of sorts, though no ingenue, trophies were naturally deferred. This is the way the game plays out though we desperately wish it would change... 

After Julianne wins a few trophies for Game Change that is.

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Reader Comments (36)

Julianne Moore was brilliant, the supporting cast was great and I have no words to describe the genius that was Moore's Palin watching the SNL skits, but I have to say that the movie, although entertaining, was more biased than I thought it would be considering the people involved. I consider myself to be a democrat, liberal or whatever you want to call it, but I have a hard time believing that a vice presidential candidate knew as little as we were led to believe Palin knew, or wasn't properly vetted or asked questions concerning foreign policy beforehand. At times it felt like the campaign staffers who did talk to HBO were trying to avoid blame for what the campaign turned out to be (and Nicolle Wallace and Schmidt came off looking pretty good)

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

But yes, Moore was fantastic.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I think they should do Game Change 2 next year, with Moore as Clinton. Remember that make-up tests?

I think Moore could play Obama, too, in a Game Change as directed by Todd Haynes.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I thought before that Nicole had the edge for that Emmy, but now with all the hype around this, I definitely think Julianne has it. I'm so interested to see it, but I don't have HBO. :(

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I haven't caught this as I don't have HBO and I'm still reading the book. But I didn't feel like the voice in the trailer was hitting the mark. I hate to rag on the obvious, but she didn't seem to capture the cadence and vowels accurately at all; it sounded more like a standard upper midwest dialect. But I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the actual film.

Also Nat, can you please explain what you mean by this?

"She's one of those magical actors that excels at interior headspace but is also able to alchemize theme."

It feels intuitively like an apt description of Juli's talent, but that's rather vague imagery that I'd be curious to hear elaborated on more.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

I was happy to see the word mimicry in your last paragraph. Julianne More was just fine as Sarah Palin. And she'll probably win the Emmy. Honestly, I thought Woody Harrelson stole the show.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I've been waiting all day for your take on this amazing(!) performance. My god, she was so good I dreamt about Moore as Palin last night. As many have stated, too bad it wasn't a theatrical release, maybe she'd finally win the Oscar(s) she shoud've won for BOOGIE NIGHTS and FAR FROM HEAVEN.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAquila Henry

Too bad she is ineligible to be in the Film Bitch Award -- and Oscar -- contention! Would be her first nom in a looong time.

Moore is getting her best reviews for this since Far From Heaven. Great.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercinephile

WoW! Moore certainly was doing mimicry and your rationals were ok, but had it been someone else ... you would have been having a fit!?

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Ultimately, the work is the reward, and Julianne Moore was terrific (per usual) in Game Change. She has a great deal to be proud of.

I think she should hold off on writing acceptance speeches though. We all know what happens when she and Nicole Kidman compete for awards. Even if Hemingway & Gellhorn disappoints, I'm sure the HFPA would rather give Kidman a fourth Globe than Moore her first. :/

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames

rick -- nah. people are so weird abotu my distaste for biopics. I often think the actors are good. I just rarely ever think they're THE best of the year. I am far more impressed, generally speaking, with actors who can give so much specificity to fictional people that they feel like someone who actually lived. That too me is a far more impressive acting gift. but awards season always proves that that's a minority opinion (sigh)

so in other words. I thought Julianne was pretty great but it's hardly her best performance so I'm steeling myself to read reviews claiming it is. (sigh times two)

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Just finished streaming it. As a political junkie who was totally obsessed with the 2008 campaign, I didn't feel that I learned much from the movie that I didn't already know. I felt as though the story line was oversimplified to highlight key moments in the campaign, which gave the supporting actors less meat to chew on. From that perspective, I thought Harrelson was terrific and stole quite a few scenes, and Paulson more than held her own. As for Julianne, I thought she was spot on, going above and beyond mimicry and conveying the personality of woman overwhelmed by the schizophrenic pace of a national campaign. I too think that her greatest moments are her silences and her glares, a smart choice by Julianne because it allows the viewer to define the character past the familiar, a difficult task when portraying someone so idiosyncratic.
I do hope that this will translate into awards and more recognition... unfortunately she is simply not 'loved' by the public the way other actresses from her generation and talent are, and no amount of acting will get her over that hurdle. Perhaps she needs to take a page out of Palin's book and start campaigning for hearts.


March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterG.ShaQ

Moore was disturbing, perfect..

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

I don't want to debate specifically about the merits or demerits of biopic performances, but isn't playing a celebrity (real person) akin to playing a beloved literary figure? That too works around the frayed debate of " "________ IS _________ !!!" Keira Knightley is (or is not) Eliza Bennett, Vanessa Redgrave is (or is not) Mrs. Dalloway. Reviewers just to get overzealous in their criticism and trying to throw a blanket love fest (or hate fest) on a particular performance. (A bit silly in their machinations at times.) Because obviously if they're acting X is going to be Y, the question is if X is Y effectively.

(And, I don't know, I see your evidence but I still don't buy the fact that the majority of actors who have won for biopics won because they were playing in biopics. I think the bigger trend is larger than life characters, not "real people" characters it's why a Monster or an Iron Lady or Amin in The Last King of Scotland gets love not an Iris Murdoch or a Mrs. Brown or a Reinaldo Arenas, I think. Like, if Edith Piaf wasn't a real person, the critics that loved Marion would still have fawned over the performance, no?)

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

(Also, very silly question - but did you intend for it to look like Jean DuJardin is resting his shoulder on Judy? Or am I just too tired to make out the image break, because it looks adorable?)

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

i havent seen Game Change, looking foward to, but your post made me want to watch Boogie Nights again, and for me is her best performance ever,shes so genuine!. By the way, NATHANIEL, whats your top 5 Julianne Moore performances??

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhonduran

Jealous of you HBO people! Can't wait to catch this on DVD.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Go Julianne. Sorry but I'm feeling out of it lately.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I've got this on the TiVo and am watching it this week-SO excited. I'm not 100% sold that Kidman can't beat her (I believe Kidman has the miniseries, which usually helps), but either way I'm excited to see either make acceptance speeches this year.

Not to quibble, though, but Julianne Moore has an Emmy-1986 Daytime Emmy Award for As the World Turns. To quote Whoopi Goldberg, "it still counts, a girl's gotta eat."

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

"As for Julianne, I thought she was spot on, going above and beyond mimicry and conveying the personality of woman overwhelmed by the schizophrenic pace of a national campaign. I too think that her greatest moments are her silences and her glares, a smart choice by Julianne because it allows the viewer to define the character past the familiar, a difficult task when portraying someone so idiosyncratic"

Precisely. The most fabulous thing about this performance was that, while I started off judging it on the level of mimicry, within 3 minutes I completely forgot about the mimicry or everything I already knew about Palin. The character Moore was playing was so electric, multi layered, compelling, human and, well, real on her own terms that comparisons to the 'real' Sarah Palin quickly became irrelevant. This performance wasn't just a superficial commentary on a famous person's mannerisms, it also engaged with the core of a particular and thoroughly fascinating psychology.

I don't know that it's Moore's best performance - it'll be tough for her to ever outdo her work for Haynes (perhaps she could attempt this by re-teaming with Haynes.. we can dream). Also, Moore gave my favourite performance of 2010 in The Kids Are All Right (I loved Annette too, but I was disappointed that Moore got shoved aside in favour of that awards campaign). But I do think Palin is maybe her most instantly impressive performance in the sense that she's never had such a punchy, commercial, compelling movie built so entirely around her.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Ugh. Moore losing the Oscar to Basinger is still one of the biggest mistakes, if not in Oscar history, then at least in the last 25 years or so.

Can't wait to see this.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Thanks for the write-up Nat. I haven't seen it yet (don't have HBO); and didn't plan to but after reading this I just might (when I get the chance...down the road.)

In terms of the Juli vs Nicole debate: I wonder if the nature of the subject matter won't affect Juli's awards chances? This is very recent, and the very divisive nature of SP may work against Juli; whereas Nicole is playing a character who is tucked away safely in the past.

then again, having watched the trailer for H&G, I don't get a sense of Nicole slipping into another character so much as simply lowering her voice (we've seen that wig in other movies, or something similar, etc etc) That may change when I actually watch it, but I really think this could be - well, a very interesting race this year.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Will there finally be justice? Julianne getting aknowledged, because it is about damn time! I'm rooting for her, she was amazing. Funny, annoying, stupid and pitiable even.

But seriously, how do people this stupid get so close to being the most powerful man/woman in the world, it shouldn't be possible.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNina

@Nina - Agreed (on both counts). But I think Nat has it quite right about reflecting the nature of celebrity. And admittedly, in the US over the last 40 years we've been downgrading training, intelligence, intellect etc as something to be suspicious of over so-called "streetsmarts".

Speaking of Nicole btw - here's HBO's official trailer for H&G; less than a minute long, and there are a few shots in here not in the longer one:


March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I thought the film was really well made. I think this is Julianne Moore's second best perfromance (after Boogie Night). Had it been released in theaters, she'd probably win that Oscar that she richly deserved. An Emmy will do for now ;)

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGolden

BTW, I enjoyed Nicole's latest HBO film trailer. Looking forward to that one as well. I think I haven't seen Nicole's face that pretty since Cold Mountain? (she's finally eased off on the botox injection, eh?).

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGolden

Very fine performance indeed. I rewatched it again yesterday in a Julianne Moore double bill - first Boogie Nights and then Game Change. Just reminds you how talented she is.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteriluvcinema

@Golden - just read your comment RE: Nicole Kidman I thought the same thing :)

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteriluvcinema

The amazing thing about Moore's Palin was that, after the initial shock of just how well she "got" Palin, I didn't see Julianne Moore playing Sarah Palin, so much as I just saw Sarah Palin. Often in biopics/based-on-real-life films I only see the actor PLAYING the role (like, as much as I love her AND the performance, Meryl in Julie & Julia). I was almost never aware of Julianne's playing of the part, only on what Palin was going through in each particular scene. THAT is great acting - when you stop seeing the actor and just see the character. The movie was good but not really any great shakes, I thought, but the acting pretty much met that mark across the board.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Not to quibble- she's grossly under-rewarded, certainly- but didn't Julie win a Critics Choice for "Far From Heaven"?

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKEVIN M.

Julianne Moore was amazing! Emmy, Golden Globes, and SAG wins next! Trifecta!

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLenny

Loved Julianne's performance but one thing I cannot get over is how much more sympathetic Palin was portrayed than she deserves. I mean, we know that Palin is just so much nastier than that. I was engrossed by the performance, but worry about that "rewriting history" element which may play to the real Palin's favor.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I believe Kevin is right that Julianne won the Critics' Choice for FFH, though back then it was simply called the Broadcast Film Critics Award and there was no ceremony, I believe. It was more like a standard critics' award in terms of publicity, though more mainstream than the others. Still, no televised moment, no speech. The only one of those she ever got was her Spirit award for FFH that same year. I guess those two combined do kind of count as one "major" awards moment.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

I'm here reading about Game Change because I just don't know if I'll ever be able to watch it. It's been nearly 4 years, and I still can't believe that McCain and Palin were run as viable candidates for the most powerful job in the world.

On a different note, I've been in love with Julianne Moore ever since "Boogie Nights" and specifically the coke scene with her and Rollergirl. That scene and the one in Magnolia in the drugstore continue to amaze. I loved her in "Far From Heaven", particularly at the end when it's become clear that she too has a love that dare not speak its name (nor be discussed in polite company).

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfrankaustx

Despite how good her performance may be, I have to say I highly doubt that if this were released in theaters instead, I doubt she'd win an Oscar for playing Sarah Palin. I just don't think people would allow that. I can see an Emmy though.

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

This movie was just so terrible. A nuance-free circus act that actually started to make me feel bad for Sarah Palin. It was a tactless joke. But I will freely admit that I completely forgot I was watching Julianne Moore.

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O
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