Charlize Theron shows the talent behind the beauty

`Monster' hit makes actress front-runner for Oscar

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

February 12, 2004|By Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour,NEWSDAY

There wasn't much hope, to put it mildly, for The Astronaut's Wife when it was released sometime in the dregs of summer 1999. Its studio hadn't even bothered to schedule screenings for reviewers before its release -- which usually prompts reviewers to give advance demerits to any film, sight unseen.

The movie, a conscientiously febrile science-fiction-Gothic romance, would have matched such low expectations, except for one thing: Playing the title role of a woman whose space-faring spouse comes back to Earth literally a new man, Charlize Theron carried this soupy enterprise with a poised command of porcelain and melted steel. She was so contained, so alert to possibilities beyond the story's narrow edges that you almost forgot that Johnny Depp was playing her flaky husband. And you don't easily ignore Depp unless someone else in the room is dancing up a storm.

Even if a lot of people saw The Astronaut's Wife, I still don't think it would have convinced those who are surprised with Theron's performance in Monster that her acting chops were more than merely solid.

Nevertheless, people still can't quite fathom the fact that Theron, playing prostitute-turned-mass-murderer Aileen Wuornos, is now a front-runner for this year's Oscar for best actress. And it's their fault far more than it is hers.

When those who praise Theron's Monster say how unprepared they were for such a masterly performance, they often characterize her previous work as being little more than "decorative." All of which says to me that they can't get past Theron's good looks, dancer's posture and model's gait.

In fact, she played a fashion model in Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998), and the only thing about that performance that keeps me from calling it "decorative" is the calculating avarice shimmering in her character's eyes as she takes the wheel of an expensive sports car.

That small, spiky role, as with the larger ones she would score, showed Theron to understand a lot more about her characters than even their creators imagined. (It's fun to imagine that she must have unnerved Allen a little.)

Still, roles like that titular Astronaut's Wife were far more the rule than the exception for much of Theron's pre-Monster career, especially after her breakout role in 1997's The Devil's Advocate as Keanu Reeves' bedeviled fiancee. Her character's mental and physical disorientation becomes so painful and debilitating that you can barely watch her descent. Surely, that should have convinced critics and casting directors that she could do some heavy lifting. Still, not even her impressive work in 1999's The Cider House Rules made the elite stand up and take notice.

The problem is her beauty -- or beauty, in general. It's odd how much our culture values physical beauty while simultaneously dismissing its potential for transcendence. The previous two Oscar winners for lead actress, Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman, are generally regarded as two of the world's most beautiful women. Yet they couldn't be taken "seriously" as actresses until they got as gritty and low-down as Berry did in Monster's Ball or as physically distorted as Kidman did in The Hours.

Theron did both to play Wuornos, gaining 30 pounds, wearing false, uneven teeth and a makeup job so mottled and rutted that you could watch the film twice and still never guess that the woman beneath all that skuzzy artifice is the same one who avenged her father's murder in The Italian Job. When reading about such preparation, you're tempted to think it's all an attention-getting stunt.

Then, you see the movie. And you realize that this isn't just a gimmick. Theron, as always, finds things within her character's nervous system to bring to the surface and broaden perception. Even when she evokes Wuornos' bombast and aggression, Theron gives you traces of the damaged, deeply disappointed child beneath the padded swagger. Theron goes all out with such inquisitive fury that you almost worry about the state of her own equilibrium after she comes out the other end of this project.

I'm sure she'll be fine, and I hope -- and believe -- that the odds will stay in her favor. Still, I do wonder about the strenuous things a pretty girl has to do in these parts to be appreciated for her brains and imagination.

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