Friday, August 7, 2015

Birthday Take: Charlize Theron in "Monster" (2003)

Charlize Theron in Monster
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Charlize Theron
Born: August 7, 1975 (40 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress (won) for Monster as Aileen Wuornos

The Take

Whether or not it actually is the best, Monster has come to embody a certain iconic style of performance. Well, it doesn't actually have to do much with performance so much as everything around the performance. No, I'm not talking about scenery or even movement. I am talking about the visual appearance. In 2003, Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing Aileen Wuornos: a notorious female serial killer who had many conflicting attributes. She was nasty and rude on top of being not the most attractive woman in the world. It may have been an underwhelming movie, but that performance, on top of just being good, introduced the world to the "beautiful actress playing ugly" trope.

Monster came to define this trope largely because of one fact: Theron is a gorgeous woman. Even if you don't think she's the prettiest, she is pleasant to look at. You know who isn't? Aileen Wuornos. In a sense, she had to "disappear" into the role and take on something that looked totally different from who she was. While the Oscars have always loved deviance and people who go against the rules, it has become odd to see the "beautiful actress playing ugly" trope form over the years. Maybe it isn't as frequent as the weight loss category, but it does crop up every now and then, even becoming a strong selling point for Cake - a film that didn't even stand a chance. What Johnny Depp did for fun, women seem to be pitted with for potential Oscars. Thankfully, it hasn't dominated too much, so the trope isn't as detrimental as it could be.

Here's the thing. Even though Theron was made to look ugly, she did provide a charismatic performance given her material. She was a woman who was dealt a bum hand and had to fight for any sort of justice. She wanted to be accepted, but never achieved it. There's a desperation in Theron's performance that gives her character depth. Even as she fights with her partner (Christina Ricci), things are mostly about the dark and sad side of her life, almost sympathizing the real life serial killer that wasn't executed too far from the release date. It felt like an edgy choice and one that asked a lot about how we saw women without privilege. Was she right? That's the grey area that Theron functions in to a tremendous effort.

I think that Monster is not a great movie, but it does prove why the trope can work. There was heart and an actual performance. There wasn't any stunt to take away from the performance. With actors losing weight, or in Jake Gyllenhaal's case bulking up, there's plenty to easily distract people from the story and the performance. While physicality adds something to the role, it shouldn't be detrimental. More often than not, this feels like the trope that wins sympathies and makes people believe that physicality equals charisma. Does it? In Theron's case, yes. An uncovered version of Theron wouldn't make a great Wuornos. However, she made it work and it ranks among some of her best performances to date.

The more impressive thing is that she has done a lot of great work deserving more of the award since. There's probably a chance that someone will be rooting for a Mad Max: Fury Road nomination this fall. Even beyond that, her ability to do comedy in films like Young Adult show a range that is unfortunately unappreciated by The Academy. Would she get another chance if she was ugly? Maybe. I just wish that her charisma was enough to get her another nomination and hopefully in the right circumstances the award. Unfortunately, she'll likely only get it for helping to immortalize the "beautiful actress playing ugly" trope.

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