Is there a braver actress working today than Charlize Theron? One could argue that Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet reign higher atop the food chain, but I think Theron is right up there with them. Not only is she a brilliant actress and a gorgeous movie star, perhaps the most beautiful we have working today, but she is an actress who consistently takes big chances with complex roles. And those roles she's taking have a lot to say about the lot of women in today’s society and how sexism and ageism confront them at every turn.
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Charlize Theron in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN|
In the just released SNOW WHITE & THE HUNSTMAN, Theron plays the evil queen Ravenna out to destroy Snow White. Her magic mirror has deemed the younger girl “the fairest of the fair” prompting the monarch to call for the ingénue's head so she can remain in power. That mirror sounds an awful lot like numerous studio execs in Hollywood prone to dismiss any actress over 30 from fronting a movie. Clearly, Theron at 36 can relate all too well to such industry discrimination, and it enables her to mine the sympathy out of such a villainous role. Ravenna may be vicious, but her motivation is purely defensive against a world that’s continually told her that beauty is the key to a woman’s power.
|Charlize Theron as Ravenna in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN|
Even when Theron was playing ingénues, she rebelled against the ‘girliness’ of such roles. In 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY she was the sexy moll of a hit man who despised being his arm candy. Her eyes spoke volumes in that role, as they always do, loathing the sexist putdowns from boyfriend James Spader. In THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE she was the restless wife of Keanu Reeve’s workaholic lawyer who saw the hell the devil was creating around them. Her desperation gave the role a depth that was not on the page and made that movie a much deeper entertainment than its rather one-note high concept story.
|Charlize Theron in 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY|
As she grew older, Theron’s range grew even greater. She won an Oscar stepping far outside the confines of a glamorous leading lady with her turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in MONSTER. For that role, Theron gained 30 pounds and wore heavy makeup to play the truculent con with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide. Theron burrowed deep into Wuornos’ psyche, far beyond the cosmetic, far beyond the hatred, to find the lost little girl inside the beast. Rape and abuse made Wuornos a monster but Theron made her vengeance understandable and even pitiable.
|Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in MONSTER (2003)|
From there Theron took more and more character roles instead of typical leading lady parts. As the struggling detective anchoring IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, Theron tried to help military veteran Tommy Lee Jones discover the truth surrounding his son’s death at an army base. Once again she portrayed a woman fighting a world of sexism. She was the smart girl trying to win a place in the boys club. But the chauvinists at the police station and the military HQ tried to thwart her at every turn because they couldn't see beyond her sex.
|Charlize Theron as a detective in IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007)|
And in the finest role of her career, Theron played Mavis Gary in YOUNG ADULT (I picked it as one of the 10 best movies last year: http://theestablishingshot.blogspot.com/2012/01/my-picks-for-10-best-films-of-2011.html) Mavis had it all in her teenage years. She was prom queen, dated the quarterback and was a promising writer. But once she graduated the world got uglier and so did she. Mavis returns home in the story, trying to rekindle the romance and restore her former glory, but it doesn’t take. And she becomes unraveled by it. Theron was emotionally naked throughout, distraught and bitter, her eyes conveying a decade of hurt, hate and disappointment. It was unflinching work, and she never played outside the role, asking for pity. She was mean and petty and hard to feel for, but we did anyway because Theron made us understand. Just like she made us see why her queen is so wretched towards Snow White.
|Charlize Theron during the 2012 awards season.|
Theron chooses roles that speak to her, to us, and to our times. And in a time when a woman’s right to choose and even her ability to gain access to birth control is still being argued by chauvinistic old men, Theron’s choices speak volumes. Perhaps we haven’t progressed all that far beyond the Dark Ages of Snow White and Ravenna. It may be a fantasy world but it sure does resemble today’s reality. Charlize Theron knows that. And because of her, so do we.