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.