I have carried on a debate with people for some time about getting older, and whether in your old age you would rather lose your body or lose your mind? I have seen first-hand both sides. My Grammy, who lived into her late 90s, lost her body. Her eyesight failed with cataracts and she had poor results from surgery late in life. She had pain in her legs but refused pain killers because they made her “fuzzy”. In the end she was in constant pain. My other Grandmother, kept her body for the most part, but suffered from dementia. In the end she did not know her family nor where she was. She remained independent until the last moment possible, but had assisted living when she wandered the streets aimlessly from her St Clair condo. The movie Still Alice explores the whole issue from the latter perspective, and does so very poignantly.
In it, we have a Best Actress Oscar Winner Julianne Moore, with a good supporting cast of Alec Baldwin, Kristen Strewart, and the almost unrecognizable Kate Bosworth (eat a sammich!!). Moore plays a much awarded linguistics professor from Columbia University and just turned 50 yo! I note fifty with an exclamation mark since this is not that far away for yours truly! Anyway, she notices herself stumbling on words and forgetting the odd thing or appointment. She gets lost running one day on campus. She eventually sees her doctor, and a Neurologist who suspects early Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis is confirmed with MRI evidence and noted as rare “familial Alzheimer’s” which is genetic, and passed from one generation to the next. If you have the gene, then you are 100% to get the disease.
We see this disease from early stages right along to its rapid progression as this woman struggles. There are many quality scenes here, but this hits home and is thought-provoking on a couple levels for me. First there is a personal level, where one wonders in middle age whether this would strike me down. Where in essence we are, and consist of, little more than our experiences and our memories. And what would we be if that was slowly and steadily taken away from us? But there is the parental aspect of this too, where you could have a sibling or a parent be diagnosed. The movie is very early Alzheimer’s but it is more a elderly disease. But how cruel is it, to have your mind and memories taken from you?
In the debate I have with myself, I would rather lose my body. I would like to keep my mind. My reasoning is that I remain sharp and I am still “there”. I could suffer the pain of a crippled body on my own and deal with it. This is preferable in my mind than losing one’s mind and memories. I think that those around you suffer more, as you are blissfully unaware and somewhere else. Like Ally in The Notebook and countless other examples, I don’t want to put my loved ones through this. This movie explores painfully and sadly what can happen and what a devastating disease this can be. It is thought provoking, and it has stayed with me. I have to admit that I really am not much of a Julianne Moore fan, and I did see her outside the theatre at TIFF where this was playing (in fact I walked right by her going to see another nominated film Two Days One Night with Marion Cotillard). But this was a very good performance. If movies are about bringing forward issues and casting new light on them, then this issue helps in the fight against Alzheimer’s. In the movie, Moore’s character says that she would rather have gotten cancer. Incredibly but truthfully, the reasoning is because cancer sufferers are thought of as victims and there are rallys and runs and things that people do. For Alzheimer’s people around you just look at you and wonder what’s happened to you, and it’s not as galvanizing a cause. Perhaps it should be.