1 March 2004
Charlize Theron has become the first South African to win an Oscar, scooping the coveted Academy Award for best actress for her searing portrayal of Aileen Wuornos – executed in 2002 for murdering six men – in Monster.
“I’m going to thank everybody in South Africa, my home country”, Theron said in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ceremony at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre on Sunday (3am Monday morning South African time). “They’re all watching tonight. And I’m bringing this home next week.”
The 28-year-old, who grew up on a smallholding in Benoni, east of Johannesburg, underwent an astonishing physical transformation in order to play the part of Wournos.
She put on over 13 kilograms, wore brown contact lenses and two sets of false teeth – one for long shots, one for close-ups – and had extensive make-up applied to conceal the looks that have seen her on countless glossy magazine covers and won her a mention as one of People magazine’s most beautiful people.
The real transformation, however – the one which had already won Theron a Golden Globe and National Society of Film Critics’ award for her performance – was psychological.
Monster producer Clark Peterson, relating the first time he saw Theron in character as Wuornos, commented: “The first day of camera tests, a woman walked past everyone who we thought was the stand-in for Charlize. And I remember thinking, ‘She really looks like Aileen’.
“And it was only after a while that I realised it was Charlize. The contact lenses, the hair, somehow she assumed this character so thoroughly that it just consumed her body language and speech and bearing. It was truly remarkable to witness.”
Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote: “What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ Monster isn’t a performance but an embodiment. With courage, art and charity, she empathises with Aileen Wuornos, a damaged woman who committed seven murders.
“She does not excuse the murders. She simply asks that we witness the woman’s final desperate attempt to be a better person than her fate intended.”
Speaking to the New York Times before the film’s release, Theron said she had based her performance on the “darkness” in her own life – referring to the incident in 1991 when she witnessed her mother, Gerda, shooting and killing her drunken father in self-defence.
“… And my mom”, Theron said in her acceptance speech on Sunday. “You’ve sacrificed so much for me to be able to live here and make my dreams come true. And there are no words to describe how much I love you. And I’m not gonna cry.”
In Monster, first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins digs beneath the tabloid headlines about “America’s first female serial killer” – and the media’s designation of Wuornos as an unrepentant monster – and unearths an unlikely love story between two misfits.
The Monster website sums up the story: “Nearing suicidal despair, Wuornos wanders into a Florida bar, where she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a young woman sent by her parents to live with an aunt in order to ‘cure her homosexuality’. Wuornos – victim of a tragic, abusive upbringing – quickly falls in love, and clings to Selby like a life preserver.
“Unable to find a legitimate job but desperate to sustain her relationship with Selby, Wuornos continues working as a prostitute. When one of her johns turns violent, Wuornos shoots the man in self-defence; the first in her tragic string of killings …”
Since arriving in Hollywood less than 10 years ago as a former model and ballet dancer with no acting experience, Theron has starred in a range of movies, including: Devil’s Advocate with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves; Tom Hanks’ directorial debut That Thing You Do; Woody Allen’s Celebrity and Curse of the Jade Scorpion; The Astronaut’s Wife opposite Johnny Depp; and Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance.
In 2002 Theron starred in Waking Up In Reno and Trapped, while most recently she appeared alongside Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton in The Italian Job.
But none of these quite prepared cinema goers for her latest role. As the Monster website predicts, “Theron’s ferocious, fully committed work – astounding physical transformation matched by unerring psychological acuity – is sure to surprise audiences familiar with her work.”
Theron herself, asked recently about up-ending audience expectations, said: “I didn’t think about it much. I just saw this role as a tremendous opportunity to grow. Playing Aileen was hands-down the most challenging, rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Theron can next be seen opposite Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death Of Peter Sellers, and with Penelope Cruz and Stuart Townsend in Head In The Clouds.
And according to reports, she will earn $10-million, her biggest pay cheque yet, to play a female assassion in the futuristic thriller Aeon Flux.
She may now live in Los Angeles – but the girl from Benoni has arrived.
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