Sony Classics’ Toronto Pickup of ‘Still Alice’ Puts Julianne Moore in the Oscar Race

Toronto 2014: SPC’s deal to distribute the Alzheimer’s drama makes the four-time acting nominee a strong contender once again

Sony Pictures Classics confirmed on Friday that it had bought the North American rights to the Alzheimer’s drama “Still Alice,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday.

But the acquisition has the potential to be more than just another low seven-figure deal in a fest that has already seen a number of those. It could also have a big impact on an Academy Awards category, Best Actress, that was looking thin, and on the fate of an actress who has somehow managed to spend more than 20 years winning raves but never winning Oscars.

Julianne Moore stars in “Still Alice” as a cognitive psychologist and college professor who learns at the age of 50 that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Hers is a beautifully calibrated performance with a few big scenes, but mostly she downplays the histrionics to sketch a heartbreaking portrait of a woman whose memory and identity is quietly slipping away.

As the latest standout performance in a career that has encompassed films from “Boogie Nights” to “The Kids Are All Right” and “Magnolia” to the HBO film “Game Change,” and a career that has brought her Emmys, SAG Awards and Golden Globes but never an Oscar, “Still Alice” gives Academy voters a solid reason to reward a well-liked actress who is overdue.

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The film, directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (“QuinceaƱera“), plays out softly and naturally, with an able cast that also includes Alec Baldwin as Moore’s husband and Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart as their children. As the child who has defied her mother by moving to Los Angeles to try her hand at acting, Stewart has the meatiest part and makes the most of it, particularly in a few tremendously affecting scenes near the end of the film.

But this is completely Moore’s movie, and the fact that SPC has set a 2014 release date means that she’s now in the thick of the Best Actress race. Up to this point, that race had been dominated by Reese Witherspoon in Jean-Marc Vallee‘s “Wild,” but it was looking far less competitive than the Best Actor category.

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Sight-unseen, five-time nominee Amy Adams has been considered a likely candidate for Tim Burton‘s “Big Eyes,” as have Rosamund Pike for David Fincher‘s “Gone Girl” and Meryl Streep for Rob Marshall‘s musical “Into the Woods.” Felicity Jones got a substantial boost from the Toronto debut of “The Theory of Everything,” Hilary Swank is well-liked by the Academy even if “The Homesman” has received mixed reviews on the festival circuit, and you can never count out Jessica Chastain with either “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” or, if it gets a distributor and a 2014 release, “Miss Julie.”

And then there’s Patricia Arquette, who in “Boyhood” delivered a magnificent performance that could plausibly fit either in the lead category (she has more screen time than anybody except Ellar Coltrane) or in supporting (it’s called “Boyhood,” not “Motherhood”). The jury’s still out on where IFC’s campaign will position Arquette – and if they opt for supporting, that reduces what seems to be a thin Best Actress field further.

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In other words, there’s room in the conversation for Moore, who hasn’t even been nominated since 2002, when she landed a Best Actress nom for “Far From Heaven” and a Supporting Actress nod for “The Hours.” (Before that, she was nominated for “Boogie Nights” and “The End of the Affair.”)

Moore also appears in a fierce and funny performance in David Cronenberg‘s “Maps to the Stars,” for which she was named best actress of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Focus World acquired the U.S. rights to that film, but an executive with the movie told GoldDerby.com that the company does not plan to wage an Oscar campaign on behalf of Moore (though Academy voters could still vote for her if the film has a one-week qualifying run this year).

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The “Maps to the Stars” performance, which like Arquette’s straddles the line between lead and supporting, is probably a real long shot unless Focus World does decide to mount a campaign. But Moore’s work in “Still Alice,” if Sony Classics follows through with its plan to get it in theaters this year and support it in the awards race, became a major contender the minute the company picked it up in Toronto.

“To have unveiled the movie on Monday and have Sony Pictures Classics picking up it up by Friday is a filmmaker’s dream,” said Glatzer and Westmoreland in a statement. “We know ‘Still Alice’ is in the best possible hands with Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and the entire team at SPC and look forward to a great release.”

Earlier this week, SPC co-presidents Barker and Bernard were named recipients of the Chevalier of the French Foreign Legion of Honor for their work distributing and promoting French film in the United States.