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In Praise of Charlize Theron, Virtuosa

Often, if I awaken in the middle of the night, I will turn on the television and hunt around for a movie; finding that many of them have something of a sedating result and put me right back to sleep. The other night, however, I came across “Monster,” which is based on the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of killing seven men and put to death by lethal injection in 2002. It definitely did not have the soporific effect that I was seeking.

Born to a 16-year-old mother – who had already divorced her father – Wuornos was soon abandoned by her mother and went with her brother to live with their maternal grandparents. By age eleven she was trading her body for cigarettes and drugs, and at 13 she gave birth to a baby, placed for adoption, that she claimed was the product of a rape. She also claimed that her grandfather sexually abused her. Following her grandmother’s death, at 15 she was thrown out on the street and began supporting herself through prostitution. Hers was a very difficult life – and it would take an amazing actress to portray her faithfully.

That actress is clearly Charlize Theron. Now in her late 30’s, she grew up in South Africa as an only child and spoke English as a second language. She, too, has known enormous tragedy: when she was 15 she witnessed her mother kill her father in self-defense, after he had fired a shotgun into their home and threatened to kill them both. Although she is still scarred from this event, she has stated that “it’s a part of me, but it doesn’t rule my life.”

Charlize went on to study ballet and then relocated to Italy to do some modeling as a teenager before coming to the US to study with the Joffrey Ballet. An injury to her knee ended her hopes of having a professional career as a dancer and she went to Hollywood with the intention of getting work in the movie industry. In true Hollywood fashion, she was “discovered” after an agent witnessed her in a shouting match with an uncooperative bank teller. She went on to get feature roles in films – some notable, some not – but what I first noticed her in was The Devil’s Advocate (1997). The difficult transformation of her character from a good-time Georgia girl to the depressed, spooked wife of young defense attorney – who ultimately commits suicide – is compelling to watch, and her acting puts Keanu Reeves (and Al Pacino) to shame.

In interpreting music, my goal is to figure out how the music wants to be played rather than subjecting it to my whims. This process is helped by having a variety of stylistic techniques and by knowing something about the composer and his or her “sound world” – and it often helps to know what circumstances the composer was in at the time of the music’s composition. This is probably why, for instance, I find Robert Schumann’s music, with the exception of his piano quartet and quintet, very difficult to interpret.

It is also why I have enormous admiration for Charlize’s work in “Monster.” As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film,

“What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ ‘Monster’ isn’t a performance but an embodiment. With courage, art and charity, she empathizes 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.”

In viewing it again the other night, I was struck not only by her physical transformation but also the endless nuances of her acting, from her vocalization of Wuornos to the smallest gesture of her hand. Without seeking pity, she delivers the pathos and humanity of her character, hidden in her history.

As Ebert also noted,

“Aileen’s body language is frightening and fascinating. She doesn’t know how to occupy her body. Watch Theron as she goes through a repertory of little arm straightenings and body adjustments and head tosses and hair touchings, as she nervously tries to shake out her nervousness and look at ease. Observe her smoking technique; she handles her cigarettes with the self-conscious bravado of a 13-year-old trying to impress a kid. And note that there is only one moment in the movie where she seems relaxed and at peace with herself; you will know the scene, and it will explain itself. This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”

From her total inhabitation of Wuornos’ persona, it is obvious to me that this was not a character that one could leave at the end of the day, and the entire process (which undoubtedly took many months) had to be emotionally grueling. Yet Charlize is clearly a strong and resourceful person who knows herself very well – and it may this trait that enables her to achieve her remarkable depth of interpretation.

She is also admirable in other ways, stating that she has no plans to marry unless all couples are legally free to do so – yet she is capable of bantering away, using some rather naughty language, on late night television with Chelsea Handler.

In a time when so many actors and actresses are unable to hold a scene for more than a few seconds, when subtlety is one of the last characteristics found in popular culture (witness the reprehensible Kardashians), I hope that Charlize will continue to astonish her audiences with great roles. Even more, I hope that she continues to lead her life just as she wishes.


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