One thing that disturbs me about all the attention given to Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster is not so much the plaudits of the performance (of which, not having seen the film, I cannot comment), but the fact that for an actress hoping to yield praise, it takes looking ugly or deglamourized.
Theron, who won the Golden Globe, is pretty much guaranteed to win this year. But who was she before this? A supermodel starlet in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, Keanu Reeves’ delectable wife in The Devil’s Advocate, the sweet girl trying to get an abortion in The Cider House Rules, and Robert De Niro’s doting wife in Men of Honor. In other words, Theron was thrown into roles that were unoriginal protrayals of women. The woman as nurterer, the woman as sex object, the woman as sweet and carefree.
And yet critics were astounded that Theron could actually act. Here are a few samplings of their assessments:
“The process that transforms the glamorous Charlize Theron into the haggard, homely Wuornos is nothing short of astounding. And, while a measure of the credit must be given to the makeup artists, the lion’s share belongs to Theron – not only for her willingness to play ‘ugly,’ but for the uncompromising approach she employs to become the character. In addition to gaining 25 pounds and letting her well-toned body sag in some unflattering areas, she perfectly adapts the attitude and mannerisms of a white trash prostitute.” (James Bernadelli) So it’s not really the performance that matters, but the appearance that’s uncompromising.
David Edelstein, to his credit, noted that Theron has “always been a good actress,” but not until he had already devoted a chunky paragraph to Theron’s appearance.
“But the miracle Theron performs is more than an Oscar-begging stunt. She gets under the skin of this woman whom the media called a monster.” (Peter Travers) It may be more, but there’s Travers’ implication that Theron’s acting is, in some small way, a ploy.
David Denby’s review reads like a jilted pornographer about to jism on his keyboard: “…she was unmemorable, almost decorative. She has a long, willowy body, golden skin, and a smile like a sunburst; she seemed a commercial fantasy of beauty—say, a domestic goddess in a Life magazine ad from 1954, or a prettily drawn Breck girl.” What the hell does this biographical tawdriness have to do with anything?
Stephen Holden calls it “the year’s most astounding screen makeover,” but likewise avoids what makes Theron’s performance tick.
Of the major critics, only Roger Ebert concentrated heavily on Theron’s performance, going out of his way to prioritize how Theron used her eyes and body language over Toni G.’s makeup job. And Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek is perhaps the most honest about the predicament: “Part of the impact of Theron’s performance may lie in the fact that, for the movie’s first half hour or so, we’re working hard to find Theron inside the character of Aileen.”
The fascinating thing about the coverage is that not only are very few critics willing to dwell upon what makes Theron’s performance work, but very few are willing to consider Theron’s talent overall.
This dilemma for actresses is nothing new. When we look at the last four years’ Oscar winners, we have the same racket:
2002: Nicole Kidman, The Hours: Kidman, now the last word on Hollywood glamour, wore a prosthetic nose and altered her facial features to resemble Virginia Woolf, an emulation that was much debated in film and literary communities.
2001: Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball: For the portrayal of a working class mother, Berry forewent makeup and dressed herself down in a sweater and jeans.
2000: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich: An exception to the rule. More of a token Oscar than anything else.
1999: Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry: Swank lost serious body fat for a wiry physique and cut her long locks.
So what we’re seeing here in 21st century cinema is a clear trend: If you’re an actress hoping to garner kudos for a part, then you have to look “ugly” (what others might call normal). You have to put on weight, abandon makeup, and otherwise throw your looks to the wind. But, sweetheart, if you want to keep working in this town, you better doll yourself back up for the money men. That Oscar’s just for the C.V.