In Hollywood, beauty can get you hired, but it doesn’t always get you the awards, Supporting Actress Oscars notwithstanding. Tributes usually come with a venerable career in which an actor is around so long he or she is given something to get them to go away. The other Hollywood award scenario comes with the notice-getting showy performance, normally in the guise of a mentally or physically handicapped character. South African-born beauty Charlize Theron’s Oscar bid comes via a portrayal of real-life serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, who gained notoriety in the 1980s.
Theron broke out in 2 Days in the Valley and has long provided graceful and effortless work in middling movies like Sweet November, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Men of Honor. Her impressive talent, however, has mostly been unfairly overshadowed by her beauty. Someone like Gwyneth Paltrow has the kind of elegant look that Oscar loves, but Theron is just too flat-out supermodel stunning for the Academy to take seriously. To gain attention then, she has to undergo the “uglification” that somehow worked for Nicole Kidman last year when she adopted that infamous nose in The Hours. Salma Hayek put on a monobrow in Frida to get nominated. The makeup job in Monster renders Theron nearly beyond recognition. Her cheek bones droop and her skin is blotchy.
While Theron, both actor and producer here, is trying her hardest, the effort shows, and that’s not a good thing. Aileen, or Lee as she’s called in the film, would be a challenge for any thespian. Successfully writing and acting a convincingly dumb character is at the triple-axle level of cinematic difficulty. All sorts of pitfalls stand in the way, from cruel condescension (Heathers) to juvenile indulgence (Dumb and Dumber) to labored self-consciousness (Forrest Gump, Sling Blade). Monster succumbs to the last of these.
Theron has obviously studied video tapes of Wuornos; her performance feels too much like an impersonation. All of Theron’s heavy gesticulating comes off like Geena Davis merging with Steve Buscemi to do a redneck impression. Still, Theron’s just too good to let the powerful moments escape her. Lee has faced a lifetime’s worth of suffering over the course of her short life as a prostitute; Theron vividly captures those moments of intense pain that Lee can no longer repress. Years of humiliation flash across her face in a glance, only to submerge again by sheer force of will. Lee talks about her potent will power and Theron is a believable pressure cooker of frustration, forever rationalizing away her despair behind an attitude of machismo.
With the role, Theron is finally getting her accolades. She was runner-up for Best Actress with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and she earned a Golden Globe nomination, even if her recognition finally comes for the wrong movie. Ironically, Christina Ricci’s is the standout performance in Monster. Having accumulated early promise in The Addams Family, The Ice Storm, and The Opposite of Sex, Ricci’s become mired in throwaway independents like The Gathering or bloated features like Sleepy Hollow. Monster may be her best performance yet. Without a false moment, she embodies Selby, a young, lost, confused kid who just happens to find someone even worse off–actually far worse off–than she is. Selby is only too dim to recognize it. A lesbian sent away by her Ohio father to live in Florida because she tried to kiss a girl in church, Selby is supremely naive. She runs into Lee while cruising a dyke bar. Lee’s not even smart enough to recognize what kind of bar she’s stumbled into, but when Selby shows her a rare tenderness, Lee is enticed, not sexually but emotionally. When Lee finally wants to respond affectionately to Selby, it is sexual because that is all Lee knows. In a moment both ridiculous and wonderful, they have their first kiss in a roller skating rink.
More than biography or a social issues film, Monster is a love story. Having been touched by this woman in a way she never has been by a man, Lee will do anything to keep her. Selby actually convinces Lee to keep hooking in order to support them both financially. One night however, Lee is viciously raped, and for all of her bravado, she is traumatized and finds she can no longer make love to men. With no education and no skills, every other financial avenue she attempts ends in shame and degradation. Writer and director Patty Jenkins pours on the victimization a bit thickly and the movie threatens to go into simplified “blame society” territory. While the handling of themes is clumsy and blatant, the emotional power is sustained by Theron. She kills and then steals from potential Johns because that’s all she believes she can do to keep Selby. Lee tosses off empty promises of security to Selby with the relish of a carnival barker while blind to Selby’s faults. Selby is too selfish to be half as devoted to Lee as Lee is to her.
As if suddenly aware of its own title, the second half of Monster gradually removes the sympathy surrounding Lee as her homicidal acts grow ever more shocking. Here too, Jenkins’ writing lacks grace. Not able to trust the audience to judge for themselves, the movie takes a pointer to the chalkboard over the tragic fate of her victims. Ultimately, the ending over-romanticizes Lee and Selby’s romance, but it could be argued that from Lee’s point of view, the romance, true or make-believe, was the only thing left sustaining her. Selby’s love allowed her to go on living, but what it took to keep Selby alive destroyed Lee.
Theron might not win the Oscar because her role may be too reminiscent of Hilary Swank’s swaggering loser in Boys Don’t Cry, or that just might be a good omen. What is regrettable is that Theron has to go to such lengths to get her talent noticed in the first place.