For actress Charlize Theron, turning ugly for her role in “Monster” was reasonably easy: a little make-up to freckle her clear complexion, a set of crooked teeth to yellow her pearly smile and a diet of potato chips to bulk up her slender frame.
The statuesque beauty of “The Italian Job” is transformed in the new film into Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who was executed in Florida in 2002 for murdering six men.
But to focus on Theron’s make-up and weight is to miss Theron’s portrayal of Wuornos, which is being praised as one of the best pieces of acting this year.
“There’s not enough fat or prosthetics in the world to hide a bad performance, and she is incredible in the movie,” Theron’s co-star, Christina Ricci, told reporters.
In fact, what is most transforming is not the make-up or the weight gain, but it is the physical posturing -- the swagger -- that Theron, a trained ballet dancer, used to portray the tough exterior masking Wuornos’ wounded and conflicted interior.
“In court, she was kind of like a blow fish. She blew herself up in order to survive,” Theron said of Wuornos.
Already, Theron has earned several film award nominations for the year’s best actress, and critics are raving.
“Charlize Theron pulls off the year’s most astounding screen makeover ...,” wrote New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden.
For her part, Theron is worried the talk about her make-up and weight will obscure the themes in the $5 million movie that debuted in New York and Los Angeles over the Christmas holiday and expands around the United States in January.
“The greatest thing I can hope for, which is an impossible thing to hope for because so much emphasis has been put on the transformation, but it’s that people can go see it and get past all that,” she said.
Lost dreams“Monster,” from first-time filmmaker Patty Jenkins, is told from Wuornos’ point of view, starting with narration from Theron telling of Wuornos’ girlhood dreams of being swept off her feet by a Prince Charming who would see her inner, as well as outer, beauty.
Wuornos’ dreams, however, led only to sexual abuse, and by age 13, she was working as a prostitute on Florida’s highways. As “Monster” opens, she is sitting under a freeway overpass, out of the pouring rain, contemplating taking her life with a pistol.
But her dreams of a better existence, of finding someone who will rescue her, save Wuornos from suicide. She puts away the gun and wanders into a local bar where she meets Selby Wall (Ricci), who has been sent to Florida to live with relatives because her parents believe it will help cure her lesbianism.
Wuornos is not homosexual, yet she is drawn to Wall because the woman offers her comfort and makes her feel like her life is worthwhile. Wall gives love and companionship.
The prostitute tries to straighten out her life, but her efforts to get a regular job are rebuffed. After Wall convinces her to go back to hooking, Wuornos is brutally raped and that incident sets off her killing spree.
The monster in us allBefore her death, Wuornos was interviewed by Jenkins many times, and eventually the filmmaker won the confidence of the killer. The night before she was executed, after 12 years on Death Row, Wuornos gave Jenkins hundreds of letters she wrote, detailing her life and her thinking.
“The letters changed everything,” Jenkins said. “They gave us insight into her character.”
Theron said reading the letters was like reading a diary. ”It was much more personal than I think we would have ever gotten with each other had I sat with her.”
Wall did not have anything to do with the movie, Jenkins said.
The film’s makers call “Monster” a love story, and it is, albeit a tragic one. They say they don’t want audiences to sympathize with Wuornos but feel empathy. But empathy is hard to conjure up for a serial killer.
In the end, “Monster” asks audiences to look at the monster inside all of us, and it exposes society’s warts -- the kind make-up doesn’t cover. “She was just a human being,” Theron said. “That was one thing that I think people missed.”