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Gold is Cold, Diamonds are Dead: Charlize Theron’s Relentless Search for Authenticity by Manuela Lazic
In 2004, the same year that she won an Oscar for Monster, Charlize Theron achieved perhaps her greatest fame with the Dior television ad for J’Adore. A decade later, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was instantly canonized as one of the best action films ever made and Theron’s anti-glamorous Imperator Furiosa became a feminist icon, but the J’Adore woman had already blazed the trail. Stalking down a Parisian corridor in a gorgeous evening gown, she took off her jewelry and her dress with determination, staring defiantly into the camera. The message: Diamonds are no best friend to a girl who wants to “feel what’s real.“ And it’s no surprise that throughout her career, Theron has worked to reach and reveal the authentic and independent woman beneath her top-model appearance.
Born in South Africa in 1975, Theron first aspired to become a dancer. After modeling in Europe, she moved to New York to learn ballet, until an injury made her reconsider. Aged 19, she went to Los Angeles to try acting, and in 1996, got her first speaking part in John Herzfeld’s Pulp Fiction rip-off 2 Days in the Valley. With her already-blond hair bleached out and her lean, tall body fitted into a spandex costume, she played a dangerously sexy woman in the neo-noir tradition. Showing off her naturally husky voice (and a very good American accent), Theron struts through Los Angeles like a true femme fatale. Her climactic catfight with Teri Hatcher is what people remember (and representative of the film’s tackiness), but this early role showed that Theron could play strong women—and was up for action.
That same year, Theron appeared alongside Tom Hanks in his directorial feature film debut That Thing You Do! as a Marilyn Monroe-esque girl of the 1960s, eye candy in a film about a sweet pop band. Theron’s looks were being transparently capitalized upon, yet being cast by an actor of Hanks’ caliber meant that her talent was being recognized too. “I thought: ‘If he thinks I am worth hiring, then maybe I’m going to be okay,’” she told IndieLondon in 2007.
As the increasingly tortured wife of a Florida lawyer recruited to New York in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate, Theron got to work with another icon in Al Pacino and demonstrate even more range despite a rather exploitative part. Theron’s Mary Ann is a committed and happy partner to Kevin (Keanu Reeves) but she isn’t superficial; his growing obsession with his job and his new boss, Pacino’s John Milton, leaves her feeling lonely and disillusioned. Theron plays Mary Ann realistically in a hellishly stylized thriller, and opposite two notoriously intense male actors who take up a lot of space with shouting and posturing, her sensitivity is welcome. It’s also a smartly physical performance, with Theron playing slyly on her looks. As the film goes on, Mary Ann transitions from her initial, ill-fitting stereotype of the curly blonde woman as a symbol of vice and danger (no doubt inspired by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) to a brunette bob that distances the character—and the actress—from a banal bombshell image.
Theron’s appearance as a nameless “supermodel” in Celebrity in 1998 was therefore a detour in her search for great female roles, but this career choice, like that of so many talented actors until only a few months ago, can be explained by the fact that Celebrity was a Woody Allen film. Today, younger actors are distancing themselves from Allen, but for Theron, it was a step towards industry-wide respect. She inhabited her archetypal part with an authenticity derived from her background in modeling and made a typically exploitative Woody female part seem somewhat lived in.
As the decade came to a close, Theron bounced between thankless genre roles, opposite an animatronic gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1998) and a body-snatched Johnny Depp in the Rosemary’s Baby-in-space thriller The Astronaut’s Wife (1998), before excelling in the ensemble of Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules (1999), where she revealed her character’s interior dilemma more convincingly than co-stars Tobey Maguire or Michael Caine. Reindeer Games (2000) was John Frankenheimer’s last feature, and Theron has admitted to taking the part solely for the chance to work with the legendary director (rather than Ben Affleck), and parlayed her interest in auteurs into a collaboration the same year with an up-and-coming filmmaker.
The actress has said of James Gray that he was “one of the first directors, other than Taylor Hackford, who really fought for me […] it was an amazing experience to have somebody stand in your corner and say ‘she’s not too pretty to play the part. That’s bullshit, she’s an actress, let’s get past this obsession about what she physically looks like.” Theron’s emotional performance in Gray’s The Yards deepens what could have been a rather superficial and uninteresting character in this Godfather Part II-like story of widespread corruption, family ties, and impossible redemption. Her more down-to-earth style matches with her character, who, like in The Devil’s Advocate, cares little for the dreams of excessive wealth that the men around her pursue.
Theron was surrounded by male movie stars in the early 2000s in The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Italian Job (neither of which showed what she could do), but, showing tenacity and independence, she moved front and center with Monster, which she produced through her company Denver and Delilah Productions. (The business was named for her two dogs.) Director Patty Jenkins (more recently of Wonder Woman fame) convinced Theron to take the lead role of Aileen Wuornos, spurring a complete physical and behavioral transformation to portray the real-life prostitute-turned-serial-killer, who was executed for her crimes in 2002. With her hairline pulled back, her eyebrows bleached out and her statuesque body altered by a 30-pound weight gain, the former model is unrecognizable. She doesn’t try to make Wuornos likable, replicating the character’s oddly tortured behavior, full of ticks and aggressive movements.
Crucially, Theron doesn’t deny Wuornos her humanity either, and Jenkins’ script and direction allow for moments of vulnerability and tenderness between the “Monster” of the title and her friend-slash-partner Selbi (Christina Ricci), herself a fictionalized version of Wournos’ real-life girlfriend Tyria Moore. Theron recently talked to Bill Simmons on his Ringer podcast about the economic difficulties that the production faced, with the financier panicking two weeks into shooting when he saw Theron’s transformation. “You’re always walking that fine line of, ‘Is it a caricature? Am I going too far with it? Will people relate to this? Will people be able to watch this? Am I making a joke out of it?’,” she told Simmons. Theron won an Oscar, but by producing and starring in a serious, female-directed drama, she also confirmed her commitment to challenging, woman-centered cinema.
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