If the last few years have taught us anything about the Oscars, it's that the Academy loves a glamorous actress in an unglamorous role. There was Hillary Swank's reverse drag act in 1999, Julia Robert's white-trash beauty queen in 2000, Halle Berry's inmate's widow in 2001, and Nicole Kidman's Pinocchio act in 2002. Last year's Best Actress race had all the suspense of a political convention: Swanlike Charlize Theron's ugly-duckling turn as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster seemed to have the prize sewn up before the film was released, perhaps even before it was shot.
Happily (and somewhat surprisingly), the performance lives up to the hype. Though more than a few reviewers claim to have discerned hidden reserves in Theron from her roles in movies such as The Devil's Advocate and Celebrity, the truth is that over the course of her still-brief career, she had shown little sign that she was destined for anything more than eye-candydom. But in Monster, released on video this week, Theron gives a performance that, if overpraised by some (Roger Ebert called it "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema"), is certainly remarkable. Much has been made of Theron's physical transformation--the weight she gained, the meticulously applied freckles and crooked teeth--but what truly impresses is the way she works from the outside in, discerning the character from the evidence of her body. Wuornos, who was 34 when she was arrested for the murders of seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, had been a prostitute for two decades. Theron finds the weight of those years in the extra pounds and layers of makeup with which she encumbers herself. The Joffrey-Ballet-trained actress conveys just the right discomfort in her body, constantly torn between rejecting her femininity and playing it up, her swagger half-macho, half-terrified. It's a triumph of method acting that falters only in two circumstances: In her voiceovers, she seems to revert to the lovely, thin, uninteresting Theron of past performances, as if she loses the thread of the character the moment she ceases to embody her physically; and a couple of key confrontations with Christina Ricci, who plays her young lesbian lover, also fall flat. Ricci, though a gifted actress, is a mannered actress, and the collision between her precise acting style and Theron's blood-and-guts physicality works to neither's advantage. Still, these are quibbles: Theron's performance is brave, and it is true.