Everything is Stunt Casting

Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’  Far From Heaven  (2002).

Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002).

The best way to describe a movie star is generally agreed to be via direct comparison with other movie stars, making it difficult to explain or contextualise Julianne Moore — a consummate character actress with the unearthly, Pre-Raphaelite desirability of an artist’s muse, she is not vastly similar to any of her forebears, nor much like her peers. No heirs apparent spring to mind. She has been ethereal for Todd Haynes, and pitch-black for Paul Thomas Anderson; a darling of the art-house with her roots in theatre, and a star of the not-terribly-good sequel to Jurassic Park; sensitive and sensual, and as adroit at T.V. comedy as period melodrama. In her iconic turn for Robert Altman in Short Cuts, arguing furiously and completely naked from the waist down, she proved two things to her audience: that she was anything but risk averse, and that, as she perhaps-apocryphally pointed out to Altman shortly before filming, she was definitely a natural redhead. In Tom Ford’s A Single Man, she played an elegant, exquisitely sad woman with a boy’s name in love with her homosexual best friend, and in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, an intriguing-if-not-excellent dissection of a slow-burn sexual relationship between a middle-aged wife and a young blonde escort babe, she managed to convincingly portray a woman whose sexual dynamism has evaded her despite the fact she looks like Julianne Moore.

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She has played numerous mothers, and most often awful mothers, in films so tonally different from each other that considering them in a list is head-spinning: the luminous Rebecca in Chris Columbus’ slice of rom-com idiocy, Nine Months; Amber Waves, a drug-addicted porno actress, in Boogie Nights; the unhappy, un-homey, un-heterosexual Laura in The Hours; Barbara Baekeland, the real-life heiress who allegedly had sex with her son, in Savage Grace; Carrie’s Margaret White, a terrifying and religious tyrant; and the brilliant 50-year-old Alice, stricken with Alzheimer’s, in Still Alice. She has a singular ability to render pianissimo emotions, light and shade that is less chiaroscuro than it is near-imperceptible. Sadness in Moore is quiet, fleet, making all subsequent explosions quasi-nuclear in contrast. “There was one moment in her performance that was absolutely staggering,” the director André Gregory has said, remembering a theatre show called Ice Cream with Hot Fudge that she appeared in in the early 90s. “She was sitting on the floor reading a newspaper and doing absolutely nothing, saying nothing. But whatever she had going on inside was terrifying… [Afterwards, I asked her] ‘Could you tell me what you were doing when you were sitting on the floor?’ She said, ‘I was counting from one to sixty.’ It showed a very clever actress who understood what she didn’t need to do to get the appropriate response.”

Her nothing was, in other words, not nothing in the sense of inanition, but intended to leave room for meaning, or for revelation. “Julianne knows how to stop signifying, how to let the viewer fill in,” the director Todd Haynes told an interviewer from the New Yorker in 2015, as part of a profile of the actress called The Sphinx Next Door. “There are times when she’s almost blank.” The little we know about Moore’s personal life — her military-brat childhood, her straight As in high school, her marriage and children — barely influences what we see onscreen, other than maybe to explain her intelligence or precision. There have been no great scandals, no wild stories. Critical writing about her remains, in relation to her reputation as an actress, relatively scarce; a surprising number of her interviews have been for lightweight women’s publications (Elle, Town and Country, Porter, Harper’s Bazaar), and perhaps because of her hard-to-categorize appeal, she has not been the subject of a more ‘literary,’ big-ticket men’s magazine profile like other, more traditional, certifiably A-List actresses (Charlize Theron, Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie et cetera), only ever making Esquire Russia’s cover. She has never indicated that this bothered her, or that her status as an actors’ actor rather than the kind of star who belongs in the sidebar of The Daily Mail was anything but ideal. Like Marilyn, it has been said that she is able to retract her beauty so that she resembles a civilian. For some actresses, this would be worse than being mobbed.

The year Still Alice, the 2014 film for which Moore at last earned her first Oscar, was released, another bravura performance also netted her Best Actress at Cannes — the lead in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Following our other great L.A.-noir-loving David in constructing an unlovely, eerie satire of Hollywood excess out of e.g. mad women, fire, incestuous families and the ghosts of villains past, Cronenberg’s movie makes the aspirational absurd, and the absurd banal, or evil. Brothers father children with their sisters; children, borne of incest, become arsonists or addicts. At the centre of Maps to the Stars is an extraordinary, schizophrenic turn from Moore that moves from one sense of hysterical to another with the whiplash speed of channels being changed on a T.V. Many reviewers argued that Moore played her character, an actress named Havana, as what seemed to be an older version of another actress, Lindsay Lohan. “Is Moore embodying a 50-year-old version of Lindsay Lohan?” Uproxx asked. “The affectation, the gripes, the mannerisms – it's all a little Lohan-y. And the Mean Girls star did have a blonde phase…” “Havana Segrand,” L.A. Weekly said, “with her frizzy orange-blonde hair, see-through shirts, and girlish up-talking is Lindsay Lohan fast-forwarded 15 years. (Or if you're feeling uncharitable, Lindsay Lohan today.)” The Guardian calls her, as if issuing a challenge to one Dina Lohan, “Lindsay Lohan’s wicked stepmother.”


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Havana is, like Lindsay and like Julianne herself, a former redhead dyed straw blonde. She wears pink velvet tracksuits with gold bangles, and smokes Marlboro Lights in bed, and says things like: “You know she used to let producers stick their cocks in her ass and pee?” and: “I met the Dali Llama. Very cool guy. He laughs a lot. He’s actually like someone you’d like to hang with.” She rasps, but with a lazy twang, her voice like tires on gravel headed for a steep escarpment. She barks out an order for prescriptions (“Ambien,” she rattles off to her assistant. “Vicodin, Zoloft, Xanax”) as if it is a mnemonic she has memorised in order to remind herself to act sane. At no point in the film’s screenplay by Bruce Wagner does the word “comeback” appear, although the fact Havana claims to have been told that she ought to become a manager “because [she] know[s] so many celebrities” does not auger well for her immediate career, and it does not suggest a minor distance between where she is now and the apex of the showbiz food chain. She is terrified of being made irrelevant, and being terrified has made her terrifying, alternately like a predator and like an animal predated. Mostly, she fears middle-age: “shitty tits,” a “used-up hole.”

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“Would you fuck me if I asked you to?” she asks her chauffeur, showing him what she considers to be her best assets in the rear-view mirror. “Am I better-looking than [your girlfriend]? Do I have better skin? Are my holes better? Would you fuck my holes?” Reducing a body to its flesh, its sexual organs, is more Cronenberg than Cronenberg — it’s also a sensation familiar to many women, and to women who have suffered sexual traumas in particular, making it unsurprising that Havana not only believes she was molested by her actress mother, but that she perceives her mother as literally haunting her. A phantom, maybe a hallucination, the dead woman appears during moments of high tension, high excitement, and quite possibly during the highs from Havana’s prescription drugs. “Do you know what hell is?” her ghost-mother hisses, pale and sodden like Ophelia in the bathtub. “A world without narcotics.” Critics sensing Lindsay Lohan in Moore’s figuring of Havana Segrand may have been influenced less by her mannerisms than by the transparent way, at twenty-eight, Lohan already wore her familial trauma the way Jackie Kennedy wore her blood-spattered Chanel suit, saying in deed if not in words: Let them see what they have done.

Rewind to 2013, and to the release of the Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis film, The Canyons, in which Lindsay Lohan played a former actress, Tara. “Lindsay,” Schrader put it delicately at a Q&A in New York, “is out of her ingénue period.” Tara is, like Lindsay and like Julianne Moore in her real life, an authentic redhead. She wears orange make-up, and smokes cigarettes of an uncertain brand in every scene, and says things that were written for her by Bret Easton Ellis. (She does not say: “You know she used to let producers stick their cocks in her ass and pee?” or: “I met the Dali Llama. Very cool guy. He laughs a lot. He’s actually like someone you’d like to hang with,” but neither seems too unlikely given Ellis’ involvement.) She rasps, but with a lazy twang, her voice like tires on gravel headed for a steep escarpment. Similarities between Havana in Maps to the Stars and Tara in The Canyons are innumerable, probably-accidental, and less interesting than the differences between the two women’s performances. For Lohan, Tara’s suffering is undercut with jadedness, a sense that suffering is inevitable, explicable by the inconvenient fact of living as a woman. For Moore’s Havana, rich enough and drugged enough that the reminders of her suffering are hazy, intermittent, what is inexplicable is the fact movie stars feel pain at all.

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When we first meet Havana, she is trying to get cast in an indie-film remake of a movie that her mother first appeared in, Stolen Waters. She will play her mother’s role, an act Havana sees as therapeutic, and as her best chance of immortality and critical acclaim. “Maybe they have concerns about stunt casting,” says her agent, hearing that the part may go to someone else. “Everything is stunt casting,” hisses Havana. “It’s a fucking second chance.” (Proving that Cronenberg is also not above being a little meta: Havana is also told that the director is “no P.T. Anderson.”) Her psychotherapist and life-coach, played with appropriate unctuousness by a particularly John-Cusack-y John Cusak, has been helping her to work out her maternal issues through the medium of half-nude yoga. “Momma, don’t,” she moans as he massages her. “Don’t hurt me. I won’t let you anymore, you motherfucker! I was your little girl…I was your little girl….and you hurt me.” If there is anything stunt-like in the casting of Julianne Moore as a traumatised victim of familial abuse, it is only in contrast to the frequency with which she’s played bad mothers; meanwhile Lohan, about whom her mother Dina once said that “she saw most of [her father’s] abuse,” could not escape the phrase “stunt casting” from the moment her involvement in The Canyons was announced, the idea of her playing a fading actress with a nihilistic streak not sounding much like acting to her critics. Never mind that she is sometimes brilliant in The Canyons, if as raw as beef carpaccio. Never mind that there are moments in the movie where she’s just as good as Moore is as Havana. Playing oneself is not seen as art unless you are Jack Nicholson, and playing on your own bad reputation is not popular with moviegoers unless you are — God forbid — Mel Gibson.

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Lindsay Lohan as Tara in  The Canyons .

Lindsay Lohan as Tara in The Canyons.

For contrast, Julianne Moore as Havana in  Maps to the Stars .

For contrast, Julianne Moore as Havana in Maps to the Stars.

Havana takes a b(l)ow—Moore’s final scene in  Maps to the Stars .

Havana takes a b(l)ow—Moore’s final scene in Maps to the Stars.

Havana is an invention: one third Cronenberg’s, once third Bruce Wagner’s, and one third Julianne Moore’s. Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis did not need to invent Tara, only hire Lindsay Lohan. As much as I believe Julianne Moore is a genius for her innate skill as an actress, I believe she is a genius for her relative anonymity, the way she obfuscates her interior life in favour of presenting us with falsified self after falsified self, some sane and some less sane, each realised in as much minute detail as the last. Lucky, too, as being average — impervious to the extremities of personality often induced by trauma —  is a luxury for movie stars and civilians alike. “The nicest thing André [Gregory] ever said about me was ‘She’s Beauty and the Beast,’” Moore told the New Yorker in her Oscar profile. “You can be the regular girl and you can be the monster at the same time. They’re one and the same. The beast doesn’t have to be an evil or a destructive thing. It’s about possibility and feeling and emotion and all of that stuff.” For a well-adjusted actress, this is certainly the case. The Canyons’ Tara, and by proxy Lindsay Lohan, may believe that a good inner beast is hard to find. By the time Maps to the Stars has finished, Havana Segrand is dead, having been bludgeoned with her Oscar. Tara, who escapes but has no place to go, no prospects, and an abusive relationship with a murderous sociopath behind her, might see this as an enviable way to go.  

Tara’s final scene in  The Canyons .

Tara’s final scene in The Canyons.


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Bio:

Philippa Snow is a writer, based in Norwich. Her reviews and essays have appeared in or at publications including Artforum, Sight & Sound, GARAGE, Frieze, The Cut, and Tank magazine.

Twitter: @Philippasnow

Instagram: @Philippa.snow