From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights. Get your tickets here!
It’s hard to think of a less naturally maternal phrase than “come on my tits,” but in Boogie Nights, Amber Waves pulls it off. Shepherding young Dirk Diggler through his first on-camera sex scene, Amber oozes motherly encouragement as she instructs him what to do, how to move, and yeah, when to finish. And finish he does, spoiling Jack Horner’s cumshot at her request but creating a kind of magic that rarely occurs in pornography: true intimacy, the sense of a shared moment between two individuals who care for each other – or at the very least, who aren’t aware they’re performing for an audience.
All of Julianne Moore’s performances are at least a little bit like that – personal, deeply committed, exhilaratingly oblivious to the camera. But with Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, she navigates a high-wire act with a particularly high level of difficulty, combining the idiosyncratic, searing humanity of her independent film roles with the magnetic appeal of her mainstream work to play a character that rightfully catapulted her into the spotlight, precisely because she seems so eager to help her co-stars shine.
By 1997, Moore’s bona fides as an actress were well-established, but the entertainment industry hadn’t quite figured out what to do with her yet: concurrent with her movie-stopping performance in Short Cuts (where she confesses infidelity to her husband, played by Matthew Modine, while bottomless) and the acting showcase Safe, she shuffled through one thankless wife or girlfriend after another in would-be commercial fare like Body of Evidence to Nine Months. When Paul Thomas Anderson cast her as Amber in Boogie Nights, the role galvanized Hollywood into not just using her more meaningfully, but challenging her in projects worthy of her prodigious talent. In return, she lent gravitas and beauty to a character who might have merely seemed delusional, or ridiculous, or stupid, providing the makeshift family on screen with its “mother” but more importantly, supplying the acting ensemble its emotional compass.
While the movie affectionately lampoons the delightful naivete of its characters, Amber anchors them in reality, first by offering a loving, supportive energy in a community perceived to be dominated by objectification and escapism, and then by revealing the tragic human consequences of their career choice. The film opens with a sequence of intoxicating privilege as Jack Horner and his stable of performers effortlessly command every extravagance (for Van Nuys, California, anyway), but Amber brings their world back down to reality in the next scene when she tries unsuccessfully to call Andy, her son. She is later too preoccupied with the introduction of Dirk to their “family” to receive a phone call from Andy, and eventually loses custody in a scene that feels as devastating as it does inevitable. There are few moments of emotion as raw and powerful in the film as the smash cut afterward to her sobbing uncontrollably outside the courthouse.
But part of the reason that we are so affected by her sense of loss is the fact that she seems so lovely and sweet, even in circumstances – and under the effect of substances – that do not perhaps attract or encourage such behavior. In their first sex scene, Amber talks Dirk through the experience like she’s teaching him to make his bed, patient and instructive; when she later offers him his first line of cocaine, she’s similarly nurturing. The other characters rely on her for a different and much more important kind of direction than Jack’s, from Rollergirl asking for permission to go pee in the opening scene to Maurice prevailing upon her kindness to solicit Jack for opportunities to perform on film.
Moore makes us feel like she and the character are synonymous. Though her performances consistently communicate an astuteness and acute sensitivity to the world she’s responsible for bringing to life, there’s something about Amber that makes us, like Dirk and her colleagues, friends and family, feel as if we’re the only people in the world to her, even if that focus comes at the expense of things – like her actual son – that are likely more important. Moore clearly loves the character, but never panders or softens her shortcomings; Amber’s cocaine-fueled reverie for Dirk at the first house party reiterates her fixation on unconditional, motherly love, for example, but it very directly and immediately comes at the expense of connecting with Andy. She’s never “smarter” than Amber, either; when she desperately tries to make her case to the judge in Andy’s custody case, Amber answers “yes” honestly when asked if she’s been arrested, but seems convincingly self-deluded about the prospect of her current and future sobriety.
Ultimately, Amber’s porn family adopts her just as much as she does them, but her role as its “mother” grants her a resilience, and poise, that her onscreen co-stars and collaborators lack. She’s loved and lost in a more profound way than any of them, and elected to recommit herself to a community where her talents are respected, and her natural instincts as a nurturer and support system for her “children” are needed more than any of them can say. Sitting in front of a mirror, quietly preparing for her role in Dirk’s comeback as Brock Landers, Amber has reconciled the way the world looks at her, and how she views herself: she’s both “a wonderful mother to all those who need love” and “the foxiest bitch in the whole world.” Boogie Nights may end on a close-up of Dirk’s penis, exposed for the first and only time, but those final shots leading up to that moment offer a hopeful reminder that even in porn, it doesn’t much matter what body part is being exposed on screen, without an even bigger heart pumping life into it – which is where Amber is by far the most well endowed.