On the top of the world

Observer News Service


You’re just so... pretty.” This is a line which is key to the love story at the heart of ‘Monster’, a line whispered by Christina Ricci’s character to Charlize Theron, who won the Best Actress Oscar thanks to her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Theron is a gorgeous girl in the finest showstopping Hollywood tradition, possessing the sort of old-style, trumpet-voluntary va-va-voom that has prompted admirers to compare her looks with those of Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. It’s a beauty we now see has been something of a liability. ‘Monster’, in which she plays a woman whose physical appeal has been brutally knocked out of her, has given Theron one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to break free of it.

It’s a sign of the priorities of contemporary Hollywood that only ravishing people are allowed to play grotesques — or even the faintly plain. Think Gwyneth Paltrow in her fat suit for ‘Shallow Hal’; Renee Zellweger shovelling away Krispy Kremes for ‘Bridget Jones’; Cameron Diaz and her latex zits in ‘Being John Malkovich’; Nicole Kidman’s preposterous proboscis in ‘The Hours’. Evidently, cinema audiences prefer ugliness to be purely cosmetic: a special effect — like alien spacecraft or battlefield explosions — skimming over the familiar, dependable perfection beneath.

And, since Zellweger and the rest never stop reminding us that they spend as long putting on the weight and nurturing those spots as the rest of us do trying to get rid of them, there’s an element of cruelty, too: a hint of turning the tables.

Theron’s performance in ‘Monster’ doesn’t follow the usual route. When Nicole Kidman wore the Nose, she couldn’t help brandishing it in the direction of the Academy: look, look, see the things I’ll do for my Art! But when Ricci’s character Selby says, “You’re just so... pretty,” Theron’s coup has been to dismantle everything we think we know about her, to show the sweetness of the comment penetrating all of her character’s reserves, all her defences, taking root and starting to grow. It’s a dangerous moment. You can imagine the temptation is there for the audience to giggle. But it doesn’t happen.

Of course you know that Theron is there beneath the brown contact lenses, the false teeth, the shaved eyebrows, the sprayed-on tattoos and freckles, the latex mask (quick-set by a hairdryer on ‘high’, to sand away those cheekbones and weather up the complexion) and the extra two stone of weight — and yet it is almost impossible to find her.

Salon.com’s critic says the shock of Theron’s performance comes with the realisation “that she has put herself completely in the service of her character — given herself over to be used, subsumed. Theron has mastered the carriage and the speech patterns to play Wuornos... and with the prosthetics, she has the right all-around look. But it takes more than actorly craft to be able to pour yourself, as she does, into the body and mind of a person none of us would want to be. It’s as if she’s liquefied her own soul.”

‘Monster’ is an out-of-nowhere critical success which Theron

herself produced after reading Patty Jenkins’ first screenplay. Wuornos — abandoned by her mother, raped by her grandfather, inducted into prostitution at nine — was a highway hooker in south Florida who robbed, stripped and shot seven clients in 1990 before being turned in to the FBI by

Selby, her girlfriend.

The case attracted a huge attention. As well as exciting tabloid vitriol, Wuornos took on immense political significance and her case was championed by women’s groups when she claimed in court that she killed in self-defence. Later, on the eve of her execution by lethal injection in 2002, she told Broomfield that every murder was premeditated.

For fans of Theron — who had never before produced a movie and was best known for playing bright and bubbly in guff like ‘Sweet November’ (opposite Keanu Reeves) and ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (opposite a 15-foot gorilla) — taking on a project like ‘Monster’ looked a little bit like biting into a cyanide capsule.

Still, Theron had her own compelling reasons for taking the risk. “It’s what I’ve been dying to do with my career,” she said. “The work I’ve been doing the last couple of years is not really what I wanted. If you’re not careful, you get typecast. I was getting stuck.” But this is only half the story. ‘Monster’ had a more personal resonance than she had so far cared to admit.

Theron was born 28 years ago in a small “dorp” near Benoni in Gauteng, South Africa. Her Afrikaner parents Charles and Gerda farmed and ran a heavy-haulage business. Theron’s story had always been that her father died in a car crash when she was 15, but several years ago Time magazine reported that, when drunk, abusive and armed, he had been shot by Gerda in self-defence (the case never came to court.) “The terrible thing is that everybody in South Africa has a gun,” Theron told Diane Sawyer recently. “That’s just the lifestyle there. And when those things are around, (when) people get irrational and emotional and drunk, terrible things can happen.”

Theron had always called herself “a mama’s girl”. Long before the truth came out, she told an interviewer: “We were friends from away back. We had to be. We were the only ones there for each other. I felt like her protector.”

Gerda now lives near her daughter — who is dating the Irish actor Stuart Townsend, her co-star in the upcoming ‘Head in the Clouds’ — in Los Angeles.

For her part, Gerda always

had ambitions for her daughter: ambitions to get her out of Benoni and, if possible, out of the country. She encouraged her daughter to enter a modelling competition which led to a year in Milan: “Waitress cash,” Theron dismissively called her wages. “It was not for job satisfaction.”

There were also childhood ballet lessons which paid off with invitations to join a Johannesburg dance company and the Joffrey Ballet in New York. In ‘Monster’, that training is up there on screen, the 12 years of dance informing the overwhelming physicality of her performance.

After a bad knee injury and a pep talk from Gerda, Theron gave up ballet (nowadays, she disarms journalists by wolfing down cocktail onions and remarking, “That was very Swan Lake”) and arrived in Los Angeles, renting a room in a fleapit hotel on Fairfax called, appropriately, The Farmer’s Daughter, while chasing her dream of getting into acting.

One day, throwing a hissy fit in the foyer of a bank — a teller refused to cash a cheque — she was approached by John Crosby, a talent manager who had also worked with Renee Russo and John Hurt. Crosby sent her to Ivana Chubbuck, an acting coach, and to key casting agents.

“Without a casting agent locking on to you — especially a beautiful female at the beginning of a career, and Charlize has such classic, Hollywood-in-its-heyday looks — it’s very tough,” Crosby has said. She dumped him without much ceremony a few years later, once her career had started to take off.

There were always clues in movies such as ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Celebrity’ that Theron was a neat little comedienne, but for a while it looked as though it was going to be her fate to play the ornamental girlfriend in fluffy crowd-pleasers.

Not long ago, reports were coming in about the roles which had just slipped through her fingers: Roxie Hart in ‘Chicago’, snatched up by Zellweger; the lead in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, which went to Reese Witherspoon. These sorts of leaks usually spell the end of a movie career — who wants tainted goods? — but Theron obviously decided to look elsewhere; to make her own luck.