Best Actress of the Decade, Entry No. 18: Charlize Theron

To celebrate the last decade 2010-2019, we are counting down the best actresses and discussing some of their most notable and memorable performances of the decade. With the help of Film Twitter, the ITOL team has selected 30 actresses. Special guest writer Susanne Gottlieb examines Charlize Theron’s career over the last decade, focusing on her role in “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

By Susanne Gottlieb

When it comes to leading ladies, few have carved out their way quite like South-African actress Charlize Theron. Coming to international prominence in the mid-1990s by playing the leading lady in movies such as “The Devil’s Advocate”, “Mighty Joe Young” or “The Cider House Rules”, the tall blond and blue-eyed actress seemed set for a career of pretty women co-starring parts. This, however, was not how Theron ever wanted to play the game.

The actress decided early on that she didn’t want to be the woman with the looks and the sexy roles and fired her manager when he only kept sending her scripts for “Showgirls” and “Species” type of movies. As she expressed it, only playing one type of role that depended on her looks would not provide longevity in the business.

In 2003, Charlize appeared on the screen in a movie called “Monster”. It told the story of Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute that had killed seven of her clients between 1989 and 1990 and was executed in Florida in 2002. Wuornos was not just any role. Theron went against her image as the pretty girl and embraced the difficult, the ugly and the psychotic. Her performance as a mentally ill woman received acclaim from critics, encapsulating not only Wuornos’ antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, but also embracing the physical changes she had to undergo for the role.

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Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde (2017) © Universal Pictures

The actress decided early on that she didn’t want to be the woman with the looks and the sexy roles and fired her manager when he only kept sending her scripts for “Showgirls” and “Species” type of movies.

With Wuornos not being anywhere close to Theron’s Hollywood look and model stature, the actress didn’t simply play her as a prettier version of the real person, a trait often found in Hollywood movies. Theron gained 14 kilos, shaved her eyebrows and wore prosthetic teeth. Her transformation, that still expressed such a nuanced performance, won her the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Critics’ Choice Movie Award and the Independent Spirit Award.

After that, the sky seemed the limit, but Theron yet again didn’t let herself be typecast. Whether she had some fun at being absolutely evil in “Snow White and the Huntsman”, a stuck-up mission leader in “Prometheus”, or a kick-ass spy in “Atomic Blonde”, the actress never settled for a preferred role.

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Charlize Theron and Patrick Wilson in Young Adult (2011) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

During these years, she also struck up a fruitful collaboration with Canadian director Jason Reitman, who directed her in “Young Adult” and “Tully”. “Young Adult” saw her play an alcoholic 37-year old ghostwriter who obsesses over her old flame and is confronted with the option of growing up due to her antics. “Tully” goes up against the pitch-perfect image of how a woman should deal with parenthood and shows Theron as an exhausted, overworked mother that strikes up a friendship with her nanny.

But the best was yet to come. When Theron appeared in “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2015, her role as Imperator Furiosa became the zenith of what she had been trying to achieve with her career. The warrior woman with shorn hair and a mechanical arm emerged not only as the true hero of the fourth Mad Max instalment, but she also defied any objectification and sexualization. Theron received world-wide acclaim for the dominant nature taken by her character, and as the Screen Actors Guild Award put it in their nomination: “You could write the entire plot of “Mad Max: Fury Road” on the back of a short receipt, but Theron brings enough ferocity to Furiosa to fill a role. A mangled warrior for damsels in distress, she’s fierce but not fearless, and Theron communicates the stakes with little more than her eyes.”

Furiosa serves as a mirror to Max, a female equivalent or equal to a usually male-dominated narrative…Compared to the minimal roles of women in the previous films, this is a significant step up.

“Fury Road” had created a feminist vehicle out of a franchise, that originally had appealed to angry dudes. The women, amongst others Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley or Riley Keough, defied the roles usually assigned to them by male writers and spectators. These women didn’t get relevant to the story because they got naked or wore a fancy dress with a lot of cleavages, thus attracting the eye of the male protagonist. The women were diverse, come with different personalities, different age groups and backgrounds, they didn’t talk about men, but they were players in their own right and not just accessories. In working together with Tom Hardy’s Max and Nicholas Hoult’s Nux’ to escape the warlord Immortan Joe who claims them as his brides, there is a message about collaboration and cooperation between the genders to obtain redemption in a destroyed and burnt down world.

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Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) © 2015 Warner Bros.

Furiosa serves as a mirror to Max, a female equivalent or equal to a usually male-dominated narrative. As her Furiosa continues to take the centre spot, Max fades more into a confused, passive, side-kick supportive role. Compared to the minimal roles of women in the previous films, this is a significant step up. Not only for the franchise but for the representation of women as a whole.

These women are not simply idolized, minimized, victimized, infantilized or demonized. They are recognized, thus breaking with the conventional male narrative action formula. As Theron put it in an interview with the Guardian: “Women thrive in being many things. We can be just as dark and light as men. We’re more than just nurturers, more than just breeders, we’re just as conflicted. Not to brag, but I think women are better at embracing the dichotomy of the yin and the yang than men.”

What’s your favourite performance by Charlize Theron? Let us know in the comments below!

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