It was a lunch at Le Cirque, it was star-studded, and actress Julianne Moore was at Table One. The star of Still Alice—a tough, raw portrait of an academic, wife and mother coping with the disintegration of her identity due to early-onset Alzheimer’s—looked, at 54, terrific. Friends surrounded her: Kate Capshaw, wife of Steven Spielberg, on her right; Ellen Barkin to her left. The mood was hopeful, even giddy, with a side of wood-knocking: Ms. Moore was and is the frontrunner for the Best Actress Academy Award. Last week, she received her fifth nomination and, if it happens February 22, this would be her first win.
It’s no coincidence that Cate Blanchett held down that same circular table last year on her juggernaut to the Oscar for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, also, not coincidentally, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. But while Ms. Blanchett held the Best Actress lead from a midsummer release to the Oscars, it’s not an easy position to maintain. Ms. Blanchett’s frontrunner status could easily have been torpedoed by the abuse scandal surrounding director Woody Allen or by any variety of developments, dark horses, loss of momentum or twists of fate like the ones this year that derailed Oscar bids by potential rivals Jennifer Aniston and Emily Blunt.
Right now, at least, Ms. Moore, too, is in the lead. She has what it historically has taken: A lead role with the character’s name in the title, a disease-of-the-week if not of the millennium, popularity within the industry and the weight of five nominations begging for a win. With an award for Best Actress in a Drama at the Golden Globes on January 11, and a season of playing the awards game shrewdly, Ms. Moore and her team may have created the perfect storm. The Awards site Goldderby.com has her odds to win at 1 to 10.
But it’s a very long red carpet, indeed, to the Oscars. And nothing is by accident.
In the months-long approach to nominations, this round of exclusive free lunches like the Le Cirque party hosted by Peggy Siegal—look, there is the actor Bob Dishy, the producers Bonnie Timmermann, Jean Doumanian and Dan Jinks, the publicist Stu Zakim—is where flesh is pressed, charm dispersed and votes campaigned for. On the fringes, in the distant double-digit tables, handicapping dominates the conversation as if this was a backroom in Vegas.
The cloistered mid-day drinking of past years that would have pleased the Dorothy Parker types has morphed into sober working lunches capped by short live interviews between potential nominees and journalists. (Ms. Moore confided as we sat down that she had decided there would be no wine for her at lunch because of a scheduled Q&A with Fandango later.)
The marketing plans and Oscar campaigns for Blue Jasmine and Still Alice could not have been more different.
This is no goofy starlet who blundered into fame. On screen Ms. Moore acts with ferocity—strolling pant-less in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts where she proved she was a natural redhead; engaging in incestuous sex with her son (played by Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne) in the passion project Savage Grace; and cheating on her lesbian partner with their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) in The Kids Are All Right. Off-set, she’s much more measured and reticent. She’s not about to take a risk between the main course and the coffee in front of a roomful of Academy voters and journalists.
The actress’ more gregarious and outspoken co-star, Alec Baldwin, who plays Alice’s beloved husband (and who, hello!, portrayed Ms. Blanchett’s feckless spouse in Blue Jasmine), interrupted from his prime seat at Table Two. He told of his Greenwich Village neighbor sending him a number of scripts for them to do together—but that he waited because he wanted to partner with her in a drama.
“Julie, in my mind, is a dramatic film actress. She’s also funny and adept at comedy. But she’s like Meryl and Cate, insofar as her heaviest artillery is employed in drama,” he wrote to the Observer in a follow-up email. As for the Oscar season, Mr. Baldwin wrote: The “awards show season now seems to cover the entire year. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re on your feet applauding every twenty minutes.”
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A few days later, Ms. Moore perched by a pillar at a back table in cozy Cafe Cluny. It’s down the street from the Village townhouse the actress shares with her husband, the director Bart Freundlich, and their two children, Caleb, 17, and Liv, 12.
Leaning over a cup of herb tea and wearing no makeup, just lip balm, her signature red hair falling simply and straight on either side of a pale face, Ms. Moore was now far less the glamor-puss of East 58th Street than the downtown New York hipster mom below 14th.
In addition to Ms. Moore’s Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Hours (2003), the Academy has now nominated her for Best Actress four times: Boogie Nights (1998), The End of the Affair (2000), Far From Heaven (2003) and Still Alice (2015) after a long gap of a dozen years.
The Academy Awards weren’t always the 12-month-a-year treadmill they have become, she recalled. “What’s weird is that it happens so early now,” said Ms. Moore. “The first time I was nominated was for Boogie Nights. I was pregnant with Caleb at the premier [in November] and a reporter asked: ‘Hey, what do you think of all this Oscar buzz?’ I was like, ‘What Oscar buzz?’ ” she said. “But, now, it starts right away even before the Oscars are over.”
As for the Le Cirque lunch, Ms. Moore seemed honestly relieved that it was “well-attended. You don’t know if people are going to show up.” She’s not being modest, she’s once-burned, twice-shy: “Somebody threw a lunch for me for The Hours. There were probably 18 people. It was a little tiny restaurant in L.A. in an upstairs room. There were two tables. That was what was surprising about going into Le Cirque and seeing the whole room filled.”
But even just six months ago, the talk, and expectations, were very different. After last year’s Oscars, early awards anticipation focused on Ms. Moore’s role as an aging Hollywood diva in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. At Cannes last May, her outrageous portrait in that film of a leading lady on the verge of a nervous breakdown, (her character screams at an assistant while sitting on the john) scored Best Actress. The satire had a mixed reception by the time it reached the Toronto International Film Festival and is now being released February 27.
Enter Still Alice, a Toronto sleeper, which had its world premiere on September 8, a very un-prime Monday afternoon in the shadow of Reese Witherspoon’s hot ticket, Wild. But on September 9, The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg wrote a piece entitled “Toronto: Why Julianne Moore Could Win the Best Actress Oscar for ‘Still Alice.’ ” The influential industry publication said: “I believe that should a competent distributor acquire this film and set a 2014 release date, Moore—one of the most liked and respected actresses of her generation, but a perennial Oscar bridesmaid (she’s 0-for-4 so far and deserved twice that number of noms)—would immediately become the favorite to win the best actress Oscar.”
By the following Friday, September 12, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, and his business partner Tom Bernard, experienced and “competent distributors,” snatched up the title produced by Lex Lutzus, James Brown and Pamela Koffler in a low seven-figure deal. Following last year’s successful run for Ms. Blanchett, the duo saw the potential for an Oscar run. Wasting no time, the onslaught began.
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As far as film exec Mr. Barker is concerned, lightning HAS struck twice for Sony Pictures Classics in terms of the Best Actress race. Said Mr. Barker, “Tom and I looked at each other when Woody [Allen] showed us a cut of Blue Jasmine and we thought here is a performance of the ages … we had that feeling again in Toronto with Still Alice. Yes, it had Oscar potential and, yes, it didn’t look like a strong year for actresses.”
You would think it would be a problem that very few outside the industry had even seen Still Alice at that point, but that was all part of the strategy.
But the marketing plans and Oscar campaigns for the two films could not be more different. Mr. Barker explained, “We decided to counterprogram Blue Jasmine and put it smack dab in the middle of summer. It turned out to be a huge hit and made $35 million. If we opened that film in the fall as an Academy contender, it wouldn’t have done as well. We felt the performance was so strong that it would last to the end of the year as far as the Academy’s memory.”
In contrast, “Still Alice was a whole different experience,” Mr. Barker explained. “It was a situation that had to happen quickly if you wanted to get in under the wire this year. In most cases we turn down a film we see in Toronto that wants to open same year. It’s almost impossible… in light of the competition and amount of work.” So the scramble began.
In September, The Hamptons International Film Festival announced that Still Alice would have its U.S. premiere on Monday, October 13, in the prestigious closing night slot at the festival. In the past few years, the Hamptons have risen to prominence as a platform for Oscar-bound films. Last year, 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture, occupied that same slot. In 2012, Argo, also the Best Picture winner, was the Hamptons centerpiece film. The 2011 Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, had its East Coast premiere there. Adding an extra connection, Ms. Moore’s co-star Alec Baldwin is something of a king of the Hamptons and a member of the festival’s Advisory Board (full disclosure: so is the author).
Accolades season arrived formally on December 1: Ms. Moore snapped up Best Actress at the Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street. The following day she won Best Actress from the National Board of Review. Add to that a string of critics’ awards from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, Calif.
You would think it would be a problem that very few outside the industry had even seen Still Alice at that point. (It played a one-week Academy consideration run in New York and Los Angeles in December before an opening January 16.) But that was all part of the strategy, it turns out.
Timing was everything. Said Mr. Barker: “We took one look at the December releases and you kind of blanch. That’s when we said we’re going to do the qualifying run in December. We did that successfully with Pollock with Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Oscar, and Ed Harris, who was nominated. We took a page from that book. If we opened in December we were competing against American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Birdman. Instead we sent DVDs everywhere, announced an opening in four or five cities on January 16, the day after the Oscar nominations. The model is less like Blanchett, and more like Harden and Harris.”
But, forget the campaign, said Mr. Barker. “The performance is so tremendous she would be getting this attention anyway.”
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Meanwhile, as the year began, Ms. Moore was picking up momentum. She accepted a Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress, at the Palm Springs Film Festival on January 3 followed by a Gala Salute on January 20 from the American Museum of the Moving Image. The challenge for her became not “Will I be nominated?”
but “How do I keep all those acceptance speeches fresh?”
And in this soft year, where Ms. Moore’s competition is Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) and Marion Cottilliard (Two Days, One Night), her performance as an emotional, layered, underplayed woman facing an ineffable loss of identity will likely rise.
“There was no doubt when I read it that I wanted to do it,” said Ms. Moore. She had the support of her longtime manager, Evelyn O’Neill, who also represented potential Oscar rival Ms. Witherspoon for 19 years. “And Evelyn said this is a great story, a great part. The only issue was whether or not we were going to get financing.”
One of the script’s central attractions was that Ms. Moore’s character drives the narrative, which is currently rare for women in Hollywood. Said Ms. Moore, “This is a subjective story about a woman’s journey through a degenerative disease—why wouldn’t I do it? When do you get this opportunity?”
Another element of Alice’s experience to which Ms. Moore connected was the sense that it’s been a challenge and a struggle for her generation of women to rise in their careers, whether it’s as a professor or an actress. She said: “Here’s a woman in a great spot in her life. She’s had a successful marriage. She has three beautiful children that she’s gotten into adulthood and thriving. It’s a great career at the top of her field. She got to where she wanted to go and then suddenly it’s the end. And I think that’s what’s so shocking and saddening about it too. First of all, nobody wants it to be the end. Ever. … But to have to acknowledge that, to have to live in that, the awareness of it going is shattering.”
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As the Academy Awards loom on February 22, a longtime Academy member, a producer that attended the Le Cirque lunch for Ms. Moore, told The New York Observer via phone: “Julianne’s a clear frontrunner. … The only other one with momentum is Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything … For me, her character is almost a saint in the movie, there’s not the meaty complexity. As for Reese Witherspoon, I haven’t encountered anyone that really loved the film. That’s going to work against her no matter how good her performance is … With the women, it’s all decent work but it doesn’t feel as competitive and compelling as the Best Actor race.”
The race may be soft, but Ms. Moore is working hard, with Still Alice wooing Oscar, Maps to the Stars an international darling and a seat on globally successful The Hunger Games franchise. Does the Academy Award nominee want to change her title from Oscar nominee to Oscar winner? Sure she does. What human that ever ran for third-grade class president did not want to win? And it doesn’t hurt that all this buzz means that more people will turn out to see it, a point Ms. Moore emphasized at the Hamptons premiere. “We make movies because we want people to see them, and the thing about this kind of buzz is it means people will probably go. So, I’m thrilled.”